While few will question the filmmaking skills in Angelina Jolie's controversial directorial debut, shot with a fine artistic eye, it's an unrelenting plotline that is perhaps its greatest downfall.
Angelina Jolie's In the Land of Blood and Honey is well researched
In the Land of Blood and Honey
Director: Angelina Jolie
Starring: Zana Marjanovic, Goran Kostic
At some point during the more than two hours of this violent wartime romance set during the Bosnian War, you'll probably ask yourself whether things can really get any more horrific. And, depending on how much has been cut, it's highly likely that they can, and will.
While few will question the filmmaking skills displayed in the production of Angelina Jolie's controversial and much-discussed directorial and co-written debut, shot with a fine artistic eye throughout, it's this unrelenting plotline that is perhaps its greatest downfall.
The story follows the Romeo and Juliet-style tale of Ajla (Zana Marjanovi), a Bosnian Muslim painter, and Danijel (Goran Kosti), a Bosnian Serb policeman, two residents of a Sarajevo that, in the opening scenes, appears a merry melting pot of ethnicities. Both meet for their first date, but a huge bomb blast signals an end, not just to the evening, but any further peaceful interaction in the city.
Months later, Ajla's flat is raided by Serbian soldiers, her male neighbours are shot dead in brutal fashion and off she goes to a detention camp with a bus load of other women. It's here where the real horrors unfold, as it soon becomes clear that life in the camp is going to be as near to hell as possible for its female residents, with regular (and graphic) rapes, beatings and suicides.
Ajla, however, is saved from much of the brutality due to none other than Danijel, now the camp leader thanks largely to his army general father – a man seemingly boasting the aesthetic features of every white-haired Serbian war criminal.
And so their damaged romance continues, albeit perhaps without the same cutesy glow as before. Ajla lives as Danijel's chosen "property", free from abuse by the other soldiers, who might tick all the boxes in the "evil Serb" checklist but who still adore their softer and occasionally guilt-troubled leader. While Ajla huddles in the corner of her room, the situation around her goes from bad to worse to watching through the gaps between your fingers wishing Jolie would just let up for a second. Old ladies are forced to strip for the amusement of the Serb soldiers. Women are used as human shields by cowardly Serb soldiers in a siege. An ambulance is blown up with a bazooka. Shallow graves are piled high with bodies dumped in by bulldozers. A baby is tossed casually to its death out of a window. There are a lot of assaults.
There's no doubt that Jolie has done her research into the four-year nightmare that was the Siege of Sarajevo when writing the script. But packing every single atrocity into the same story seems just too much, damaging the overall message about the war Jolie is trying to get across.
And painting such a stark picture of black and white - with evil rapist Serbs, poor defenceless Bosnians and few in between - is dangerous territory, particularly for a Hollywood Hills-residing A-lister with no first-hand experience of the conflict. The criticism from Serbia is unsurprising.
That said, In The Land of Blood and Honey is an accomplished debut. While it seems unlikely, given Jolie's convictions, let's just hope her next is a less contentious target.