There Be Dragons, 2011.
Written and Directed by Roland Joffé.
Starring Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Dougray Scott and Olga Kurylenko.
In the wake of the Spanish Civil War, a journalist discovers a dark and devastating connection between his estranged father and a candidate for canonization.
Okay I’ll admit it, when first tasked with writing a review for this, and seeing the cast involved but no synopsis, I assumed that this would be a cheap fantasy flick about dragons. I’d hoped for a bit of cheesy, slightly lame entertainment with probably slip-shod CGI dragons that looked like a relic of the early 90s water-testing delves into computer animation. As it transpires this is about metaphorical dragons. Metaphorical dragons breath no fire, nor do they have talons – they just exist inside us all as we struggle internally to overcome them.
There Be Dragons, when it’s not duping fools like myself, is actually set during the Spanish Civil War. Dougray Scott plays Robert, a Spanish-born reporter working in London, who’s writing a book about the soon to be sainted, Josemaria Escriva. His best source for background on Josemaria is his estranged father, who grew up in the same village. As Robert learns more of Escriva, he ends up learning even more about his perennially evasive father.
Roland Joffe directs and with his track record on period dramas, he should deliver an engaging movie. However unlike The Killing Fields or The Mission, There Be Dragons fails to engage. It’s an overly melodramatic and distinctly average film that overstays its welcome. The narrative is sloppy; Roberts father, Manolo (Wes Bentley) is the one who drives the narrative on through flashbacks. His insight into Josemaria stretches from childhood into adulthood. The problem is much of the time the film can’t find the balance between telling us about Josemaria, and telling us about Manolo. What’s more, as the two men spend the majority of their adult life well apart from each other, you have to wonder just how Manolo knows so much specific detail about his one-time childhood friend. In the end we never quite get enough insight into the Saint or his teachings. There’s a few interesting turns in the plot but they come too little, too late.
The cast are pretty average. They’re not given a lot of inspiration to work with, but there’s no one here who can really elevate proceedings. Wes Bentley wears a permanent, dead-eyed scowl. He’s never been my favourite actor by any stretch of the imagination, and here he looks like an outcast from a Twilight movie, not the crux of what should be an emotionally involving story. Charlie Cox is okay, but feels woefully miscast (he’s not the only one here to be fair). Olga Kurylenko is gorgeous, but not much else. There’s some reliable support from Brits Derek Jacobi and Charles Dance, but all too brief.
It’s just all a bit misguided and sloppy. The film is shot in English with a predominantly and decidedly non-Spanish main cast. As such it suffers from some turgid Spanish accents. Perhaps sometime a decent Spanish director, with a Spanish cast, in their own language could do a far more enjoyable and convincing film about inner dragons, father/son relations, saints and civil war. The accents though, why? It’s off putting and just smacks of laziness. Granted it’s a Hollywood tradition and in something as exceptional as Schindler’s List isn’t given a second’s thought, but in mediocrity like this, when you’re not tuned in and engaged with the film, you pick up on little things like dodgy accents that would be more at home in an episode of Fawlty Towers (“Que?”)!
Overall, this is a misguided failure. It went by unnoticed during a theatrical run in the US, and will largely miss an audience in years to come. It’s not terrible, but it’s just triumphantly dull. What it needed most? CGI dragons!