Title: There Be Dragons
Directed By: Roland Joffé
Starring: Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Olga Kurylenko, Dougary Scott, Golshifteh Farahani, Rodrigo Santoro
First and foremost, you should know there are no dragons in There Be Dragons. Of course we can’t take every title literally, but when you’ve got one that pronounces a particular beast will exist, you either must deliver or provide a valid explanation for the name. Again, There Be Dragons features no dragons, merely a weak reasoning of the title and just about everything else that happens in the film for that matter.
Inspired by true events, There Be Dragons focuses on childhood friends Josemaría Escrivá (Charlie Cox) and Manolo Torres (Wes Bentley). While both boys wind up attending the same seminary, from there, they go on entirely divergent paths, Manolo working as a spy in the Spanish Civil War and Josemaría becoming a priest and fighting to keep the faith in even the most violent times. When Josemaría is left with no choice but to abandon Madrid and flee to safety so he may see his vision of Opus Dei to fruition, Torres remains on the battlefield where he develops a dangerous obsession with a Hungarian radical named Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko).
Their tale is told through the research of Manolo’s very own son, Robert (Dougary Scott). Robert’s writing a book about Josemaría and naturally, his primary source is his father. Initially the now old and ailing Manolo refuses to unearth the haunting memories, but once Robert opens the floodgates, his father has no choice but to confront the past so he may finally be forgiven.
There Be Dragons is an epic story through and through. There is a ton of information to be conveyed throughout an expansive time period and while some elements certainly resonate, a significant amount of information falls through the cracks, specifically in the beginning. Very little registers in terms of the introduction to Robert’s assignment as well as the book’s connection to his father and, by the time it does sink in, we’re whisked away to Manola’s boyhood. When we finally return to Robert in 1982, we’ve nearly forgotten the time period and scenario existed in the film to begin with.
The time warp has the same effect on the past. Once we’ve finally gotten into the earlier years of Manola and Josemaría, we’re transported back to Robert’s story, which ultimately is the least compelling piece of the film. Had writer-director Roland Joffé axed the more modern segment entirely, he might have been able to achieve the necessary character development to make the Spanish Civil War portion of the film far more effective.
Instead, we get the incredibly weak 1982 coverage and the only semi-successful recollection of the past. One of the main problems with young Manolo and Josemaría’s tale is the structure of the presentation of their childhood. First off, it takes quite a bit to figure out who’s who and, once you do, even longer to sort out their relationship and by the time you do, you’re exhausted from the incredible amount of effort it takes.
The next portion of the film isn’t only completely flat, but wholly uninteresting and forgettable. There’s some nonsense about Josemaría’s family losing their business which is completely glossed over and then something about a strike that turns Manolo into this high-powered bad guy. Where as Josemaría’s transformation from boy to priest is sensible, Manolo’s journey from innocent boy, to obnoxious rich kid to dubious spy doesn’t track in the least.
It’s never quite clear what he’s doing until he agrees to spy on the rebels. That’s when things get semi-interesting for Manolo, but that might have more to do with the stunning wartime visuals than it does with the actual story. Much of Manolo’s life at the time revolves around Ildiko and it’s made very clear early on that he doesn’t stand a chance. In fact, right off the bat, Ildiko despises him ultimately making us dislike Manolo even more than we did before.
Josemaría’s portion of the film, on the other hand, is far more engaging. Not only is he more likeable, but his story is also more tangible. He’s a priest that’s dedicated to his people and strives to stay with them during these harsh times despite the violent threat to local priests. Josemaría has a very compelling debacle; does he stay and fulfill his promise to his followers on a local level or does he fulfill this promise by sparing his own life and continuing to spread faith? It’s a trying battle and you’ll want to fight for his causes as much as his associates do. Then again, those supporting characters are the weakest part of Josemaría’s tale. Rather than come across as individual people, they’re impossible to tell apart and are just one big blur.
On the acting front, most give commendable efforts. Cox steals the show simply because he’s the only one working with a well developed character, but Bentley manages to make a slight impression as the small handful of his scenes that are well-written really do hit home. Kurylenko fairs well as Iidiko as does Rodrigo Santoro as her dashing revolutionary leader and lover, Oriol. The problematic performances are secluded to 1982. Scott’s inner turmoil isn’t convincing in the least, making you feel as though he isn’t even worthy of his father’s affection anyway. Further dragging Scott’s character down is his girlfriend played by Golshifteh Farahani. Farahani is just a flat out bad actress. She’s a mere supporting character, yet is the most memorable simply because she destroys the illusion every time she speaks. She exhibits no connection to her character or to the story.
One of the truly notable elements of this film is the imagery. With a period piece, you either pull off the visuals or you don’t and in this sense, Joffé hits a homerun. Everything from the costumes to the set design feels incredibly realistic and, on top of that, it’s all simply stimulating to look at. Then again, there’s just so far a pretty picture can take you; you need heart, honesty and simply enough information to fill it out and, in There Be Dragons, those elements are hard to come by.
By Perri Nemiroff