Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Monuments Men

George Clooney’s canon of dependable, solidly crafted films as director gets another entry with ‘The Monuments Men’. It’s been greeted by an almost consensus critical opinion: plodding pace, under-developed characters, turgid voiceover.

I’d love to post a contrary review and herald the film as a misunderstood classic – indeed, this review proceeds from my opinion that it’s decidedly better than most people are giving it credit for – but it has to be admitted from the outset: ‘The Monuments Men’ is flawed. The main problem is the script, which veers between smartarse caper movie and big dramatic statement on the value of art over life.

Or to put it another way, Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov can’t decide if they want to remake ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ or ‘The Train’.

That much-levelled criticism re: the characters holds. Less than halfway through, I’d given up trying to remember their names or whatever tiny daub of backstory they’d been given. They were simply The Snobbish One (Bob Balaban), The Gregarious One (John Goodman), The Wry But Melancholy One (Bill Murray), The One Speaks Bad French (Matt Damon), The Two One Who’s Actually French (Jean Dujardin), The One Who’s Awfully British What Ho! (Hugh Bonneville) and The One Who’s George (Clooney).

There’s also Cate Blanchett, whose French accent vacillates from borderline acceptable to ‘Allo! Allo!’

At the heart of the film is one hell of an inspiring true story, and when the script focuses on the logistics of tracking down and recovering stolen artworks, often from behind enemy lines and with little or no support, Clooney responds well as actor and director. There’s a particularly effective upswing in terms of urgency and tension in the second half when, following the German surrender, what should have been a more relaxed endeavour is suddenly complicated by the Russian Army’s rigorously mobilised Trophy Brigade, out to forcibly claim as much art as possible and ship it off to the motherland. The race to recover Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child is both a genuine edge-of-the-seat sequence and the script’s finest explication of the importance of art.

Elsewhere, cringe-worthy moments abound: not least a Christmas message received by one of the team which is intercut with a young soldier dying in a hospital tent (imagine if Spielberg had made ‘M*A*S*H’ instead of Altman: yes, that schmaltzy).

At its best, though, ‘The Monuments Men’ is a well-crafted mainstream production. There’s enough genuine commitment to the subject matter to mark it out as more than just a vanity project or a chance for Clooney to gift half a dozen roles to his buddies. The production design is excellent. Clooney suggests an epic, battle-scarred backdrop and sets up an effective counterpoint between the aftermath of wartime conflict and the timeless cultural importance of the works his heroes recovered.

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