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Harrison's Flowers (March 12/02)

When describing an Andie MacDowell movie, the words "gritty" and "harrowing" do not immediately spring to mind.

But that's exactly what Harrison's Flowers is, which details the risky profession of photojournalism during a time of war. The movie opens in 1991, and the Taylor family seems to have it all - dad Harrison (David Strathairn) is a successful and respected photographer, while mom Carrie (MacDowell) works at Newsweek. But tragedy strikes when Harrison accepts an assignment to cover what appears to be a small civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and supposedly dies. Supposedly because Carrie refuses to accept his death, and is soon in the middle of the action herself - intending to either rescue her husband or find his corpse. She hooks up with a trio of jaded and experienced photojournalists (played by Adrian Brody, Elias Koteas, and Brendan Gleeson), and the unlikely foursome encounter bear witness to the various atrocities of the Serb/Croat conflict.

Unlike most war movies, the events in Harrison's Flowers transpire through the eyes of civilians (rather than soldiers). This unique perspective allows the audience to identify more closely with what's happening on screen, which rarely happens in other flicks about war. By removing the gap that normally exists between the characters and the audience (because, let's face it, it's hard to really identify with the plight of a soldier - unless one has fought in a war), the movie becomes far more involving and disturbing.

And unlike a movie like We Were Soldiers - which never became anything more than an old-school, John Wayne-esque "let's rally around our troops" type of war film - Harrison's Flowers feels brutally realistic. Carrie's initial journey through Austria en route to Yugoslavia is a picturesque look at the European countryside. But that peaceful drive is rudely and abruptly interrupted by gunfire, as Carrie and her hapless hitchhiker find themselves squarely in the middle of a battle. After having her car demolished by a tank, Carrie's companion is shot in the forehead and she's almost raped (more fighting distracts the soldiers). There are other equally compelling sequences, such as a dangerous stroll down a war-torn street, which are treated unsentimentally - allowing the movie the feel of a documentary.

But the underlying thrust of the film is the love story between Carrie and Harrison. Despite almost insurmountable obstacles, Carrie never wavers from her pledge to find Harrison - dead or alive. MacDowell's performance is certainly her most impressive since sex, lies and videotape, but she's still overshadowed by her supporting cast. Strathairn once again gives a compelling and complex performance, as do the trio of photojournalists who accompany Carrie on her journey. Brody, in particular, is a standout as the rebellious photographer who pleads with Carrie not to continue, but eventually acquiesces to her strong desire.

Harrison's Flowers is a touching and moving love story, but the graphic war violence may turn some viewers off. For others, it's one of the most rewarding movies to be released in a good long while.

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