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The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc

Year: 1999
Studio: Gaumont
Director: Luc Besson
Writer: Luc Besson/Andrew Birkin
Cast: Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich, Vincent Cassel, Faye Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman, Toby Jones, Tchéky Karyo

Back in about 2015 I attended a double bill of Tron and The Black Hole with some of the behind-the-scenes creatives in attendance to talk about how they were made. There was a strong thread that the gap between the two movies (made in 1979 and 1982, respectively) represented a changing of the guard in Hollywood, a transition where big budget adventure and sci-fi went from elaborate sets and real-world props to animation and graphics.

Luc Besson's biopic of the 15th century peasant girl who rallied France to repel the occupying English couldn't seem less related to the above tidbit from film history, but I was reminded of it because while everyone else was enamoured with The Matrix and Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace, Besson and his crew were fabricating swords and shields, putting actors and stunt people on horses to ride with upraised flags and standards and shooting in real castles across France and the Czech Republic.

On the surface it's little more than the story of Joan of Arc and what she did at a time of political upheaval in medieval Europe, but the script by Besson and cowriter Andrew Birkin strikes a nice balance between the larger political machinations of the time and the determination, certainty and eventual existential doubt Joan (Milla Jovovich) suffers.

We meet her as a young girl, dancing and playing in the fields before being assailed by a violent vision. Terrified, Joan returns to her village to find it in flames, marauding English soldiers massacring everyone. When Joan's sister hides her in a cupboard, the frightened girl sees a soldier rape and murder her sister through the cupboard doors.

After the siege, Joan is sent to live with relatives but can't shake the certainty that her vision was a message from God, commanding her to drive the English from France. A few years pass but she's still barely 19 when she seeks an audience with the Dauphin (heir apparent) to the throne, Charles VII (John Malkovich), asking him for an army to lead against the English.

Out of options to deal with their oppressors, Charles gives Joan her army, who she leads against the English at the fateful battle of Orléans. Though skeptical of taking orders from an illiterate teenage girl, the commanders of the French forces (including a young Vincent Cassel) do their best to follow her instructions and to everybody's surprise, they rout the English completely.

Now heralded as a saviour, Joan becomes a fixture in the court, asking for ever-more soldiers to drive the English even further back. But when Charles, now King, loses his nerve and prefers to use diplomacy instead of force, he betrays Joan by not sending the reinforcements she's demanded to the siege of Paris and letting her fall captive to the English.

Chained in a prison cell, Joan feels the first stirrings of doubt about her quest. A hooded figure (Dustin Hoffman) who appears to be God speaking to her but is billed in the credits as 'conscience' quietly and ruthlessly questions her unshakable faith in her visions, asking if she's not just crazy, and its in those scenes the story zeroes in on Joan as a character, peering deeper into her soul rather than at the power politics of middle ages France.

But to its credit, the story at that point hasn't actually completely abandoned Joan's inner struggle – by then we've seen glimpses of another man who seems to be Christ and a stone in the woods, talismans from her visions that seem to be driving her onward – all of which stops it being just a well-staged history lesson.

While her career start as a model would suggest otherwise, Jovovich has always been a good actress (look no further than the little seen The Fourth Kind for proof). And here she gives Joan everything she has, playing her for most of the movie as a wide-eyed ingenue who's sure of her path. When she becomes consumed by doubt and guilt she's no less fierce in her faith and innocent looking, but she plays her scenes against Hoffman as the invisible voice in her head beautifully.

It seemed to arrive at the wrong time in history when we all wanted slick computerised visuals, but if you'd bothered to see it in 1999 there's every chance you would have appreciated some of the in-camera arts, reminded of the Golden Age of big-scale filmmaking.

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