By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 18, 2011 at 4:20PM
Arguably the most famous actress working today, Angelina Jolie has made third-world advocacy a major part of her brand. For the topic of her feature writing-directing debut, she choose the devastation of the nineties-era Bosnian War, an incursion largely forgotten in the West but still reverberating in the nightmares of the Bosnians who suffered through it. Certainly it matches her actor-activist interests and she can afford to put a camera wherever she wants. But does she know what to do with it?
It turns out the answer is, basically, yes. "In the Land of Blood and Honey" breaks no fresh ground in the tradition of staid, grim war dramas from which it hails, but Jolie successfully capitalizes on a juicy premise that finds Bosnia woman Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) falling into an affair with Danijel (Goran Kostic), the Serbian head of a prison camp where she's held captive. Working from her own screenplay, Jolie churns out a steadily involving, competently dramatic tale. The movie also stands out as a strong technical feat: Shot on location with an entirely Bosnian cast speaking Serbo-Croatian (although an English version was alternately shot), it thoroughly inhabits the period setting with a consistent feel for the cold, brutal events of its backdrop.
Set in 1992, "In the Land of Blood and Honey" begins with a blunt title card explaining that pre-war, Muslims, Serbs and Croats lived "in harmony," a sharp contrast to the discord that soon takes place. During a brief prologue, Jolie introduces her characters' initial courtship when Ajla and Danijel meet cute on the dance floor of a Bosnian club. Their perfect moment is cut short by the flash of an explosion announcing the beginning of the war. Suddenly, Danijel is a soldier following orders and Ajla is a woman in trouble. As bodies lie around them and the violence begins, Jolie completes her opening sequence with an effectively sharp turn into chaos.
The ensuing drama plays out like Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book" crossed with Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution," as Ajla avoids the brunt of prison camp life when Danijel hires her to draw portraits of the guards; meanwhile, she secretly helps rebel forces, including her sister, plan a counterattack. The couple's pillow talk implies that politics stay out of the bedroom, but Ajla's motives remain highly suspect when she decides to take on the role of double-agent. Danijel simultaneously struggles with a different conflict of interest, living in the shadow of his militant father's demands while falling for Ajla.
Aided by veteran cinematographer Dean Semler (responsible for lensing the grimy, violent images of "The Road Warrior" and "Apocalypto," among many other credits), Jolie infuses her star-crossed romantic tragedy with gravitas, particularly with her unsettlingly upfront portrait of the soldiers' abuse of women. Her derivative plot lags at times, and the screenplay falters whenever the characters launch into prolonged discussions of their relative allegiances. "It's politics, not murder," Danijel tells Ajla, one of several one-liners that drag the movie down. But in these moments the movie's salvation comes from its two capable leads, whose focused performances carry some of the more problematic moments of half-baked theatricality.
The eventual fallout of their relationship arrives not with an explosive score or climactic shootout but through a few terse exchanges and one bullet. Jolie's morbid atmosphere suggests a restrained "Schindler's List," exploring national suffrage through a handful of personal experiences imbued with dread. She does right by the material, even though she never pushes it in a particularly fresh direction. An end credit deems the Bosnian war the deadliest since WWII and the most impressive thing about "In the Land of Blood and Honey" is that Jolie makes you feel it.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Already nominated for a Golden Globe in the category of Best Foreign Film, "In the Land of Blood and Honey" presents a challenge for distributor FilmDistrict, which opens the movie in limited theatrical release this Friday ahead of a wider national release planned for January. Jolie's celebrity gives the movie tremendous visibility, but its grim historical backdrop and foreign language make it a harder sell to American audiences. However, Jolie's publicity for the film may help scrape by with a small profit during the January release, if not during the much smaller limited run this month.