Set in historical mid-'90s America during widespread military conflicts across the globe, Harrison's Flowers takes you into the world of wartime photographers, their obsession, and the love that they can share for one another. The story focuses on a loving family, Harrison (David Strathairn) and Sara (Andie MacDowell), who are happily married yet separate almost all the time due to the husband's global prestige in the journalism world. Harrison travels persistently as a well-revered Pulitzer caliber photographer, while Sara works within the publication's development department. Finally, after years of separation from his children and a devoted yet neglected wife, Harrison makes the decision to take one last job before he bows out of his profession. It's a dangerous trip, one taking him deep into the torn terrain within former Yugoslavia.
Something terrible goes wrong, however. Sara receives word that Harrison and several others within the group he was traveling with had met their demise while scanning the cities. Though he was proclaimed dead, Sara doesn't entrust in this proclamation. She believes him to still be alive, possibly captured or held up in the area instead. Confused and passionately crazed, Sara makes the wild decision to go by herself in search of her husband. Without the help of others in her field, namely a crew of photographers (Adrien Brody, Brendan Gleeson) and another close family friend photographer that she finds in the country (Elias Koteas), she will not be able to make it out of this hellish, broken land with her own life intact.
Though completely unique in story and potency of narrative, Harrison's Flowers reminds me a lot of two more popular films released within the past five years, Children of Men and The Constant Gardener. It's neither science fiction nor directly political in nature. Instead, Harrison's Flowers harnesses the visually grappling nature of dilapidation achieved in Children of Men, while also ensnaring the worldly fervor and undying richness of love that makes The Constant Gardener terrific. Its cold presentation, crippled and crumbling with beauty, becomes usurped by the boiling desire behind Sara's poise as the film's driven heroine. The photographers' passion for their art becomes a daunting, rich power packed with strife and potency as they scope over Yugoslavia's shattered landscape.
There's an unexpected element that surfaces within Harrison's Flowers that takes the film to its own rich levels: tense action. There's actually a lot of tense action for a film of this type. With mounting strain, the first act of this film maintains a steady demeanor as we grow to know Harrison, Sara, and their familial connection with both their children and their co-workers. However, once Sara and the other photographers enter into the warzone amidst this endless and non-directional conflict, it's a lot more aggressive than expected. After witnessing the demeanor crafted from this enveloping heart from our character's deconstruction, I felt like the warzone wouldn't be very hard to handle in regards to stringent tension. This initial demeanor felt like a setup to a gracefully smooth drama without any rattling jitters. I was very pleasantly surprised as to how thoroughly ensnaring and persistent the exploding, flaming, bullet-drenched sequences were. Harrison's Flowers shifts gears from an intelligent, sweeping drama to a full-throttle thrill ride without showing any signs of effort.
Each of our key players gets sucked into this story shifts gears nearly as effortless. Simply, Andie MacDowell is more impressive in this film than I've ever seen her before. She's never really caught my attention as a strong element, only maintaining a functional keel in such films as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Groundhog Day. MacDowell really stretches herself in Harrison's Flowers, however, pushing forward towards her dramatic, impassioned pinnacle. There's a particular scene in which she sits, pensive and saddened, with nothing but swollen eyes and tears streaming down her cheeks. Stoic and bubbling, she carries more clout in this scene than I've seen from her to date.
Another performance that shocked me with poignancy was from Adrien Brody. It's not because I haven't been impressed with him throughout his fantastic catalog, which I have. He just stood out more as a character he was portraying instead of a slightly altered manifestation of himself. As Sara's brazen confidant, you look forward to nearly every word that he utters. Equally as notable, though, are Brendan Gleeson and Elias Koteas as two other supporting photographers. The only disappointment here is from David Strathairn, and it's not so much rooted in a poor performance. He's not given very much time in the limelight and not nearly enough material as Harrison. Strathirn manages to get the job done when he does sneak in an appearance here and there, but I've seen him much stronger in his other works when he's given the time to really expand. He, and Harrison himself as a character, aren't provided with this time on screen to see exactly how strong of a driving force he is for our fueled search party. Still, we're able to entrust the strength and fate behind Harrison enough to follow with wide eyes as his wife hunts diligently for him, whether it be in life or death.
There's a certain strength that disperses to the surrounding characters that comes from his absence. Taking Harrison out of direct light lends strength and tangibility to a wider spread of characters. What results is a quality relationship narrative that remains wholly inclusive to all these compelling characters. Harrison's Flowers is a strong film without being overly emotive, opting to be equally brisk with tension and dramatic poignancy. It's important without being politically meddlesome and action-based without that lingering sense of brainlessness. More importantly, Harrison's Flowers is a sheer wonderful piece of work that remains incredibly accessible to those who aren't privy to most films about the struggle for dangerous art. I'm overjoyed to have discovered such a splendidly taut film.
Harrison's Flowers comes from Lion's Gate in a standard keepcase with reflective discart.
Harrison's Flowers shines a wonderful light on the screen with an incredibly clean anamorphic presentation. It's a film with an intentionally drab and cold palette, lacking in richness and vibrancy. Still, you can see the impeccable craftsmanship and beauty lingering in these shots. More importantly, minor details surrounding the dense, crumbling scenery and explosive action all looks simply fantastic. Dust and scratches wiggle their way into the print, but it's a very small fraction of the time. You'll be heartily impressed with this visual quality.
Sadly, everything from this point forth is a disappointment. In contrast to the video, the aural presentation leaves a lot to be desired. Granted, this film does have a bit of a dramatic keel, but the Dolby 2.0 Stereo presentation just doesn't cut the mustard. Interestingly, the back of this art states that the Dolby is Monaural, but a clear signal is sent to each left and right channels. No matter whether it's monaural or stereo, sad news is coming. As reviewed here in this preceeding out-of-print release, not only is a 5.1 channel track available, but so is a DTS track.
Honestly, the film could whole heartedly benefit from such a prolific track when the louder, explosive scenes kick into gear. Instead, the Stereo presentation is borderline serviceable with exceedingly mediocre levels of fidelity. Voice quality is fairly strong with this disc, but the sound effects leave more to be desired. English and Spanish subtitles are available, as are Closed Captioned English subs.
Scene Selection access is the only bonus feature available. The previous release also appears to be bare boned when it comes to special features as well.
Harrison's Flowers is a top-shelf film that somehow got lost in the shuffle during its debut year (2000). It's a true shame, because with the right focus this film could have really vaulted up in the ranks of great releases of that year. Instead, we're given the opportunity to enjoy it in all its glory on DVD. Sadly, this is a very dim DVD release compared to the slightly more impressive OOP disc. The film itself (and with the proper presentation) comes Highly Recommended, but in this easily accessible incantation Harrison's Flowers merely comes Recommended for pure video performance and film quality. If you can, take some steps towards obtaining the Universal release for the higher-quality audio tracks.