Triage offers a promising start, but strong performances do not save this harrowing war film from losing its bite.
Conflicts in the war zone
Director: Danis Tanovic
Starring: Colin Farrell, Paz Vega, Christopher Lee
One strip, the blue, means death. The other, yellow, signifies life. In a particularly harrowing scene towards the beginning of Triage, two war photographers find themselves in the midst of a Kurdish makeshift hospital, filled to bursting point with wounded soldiers. The attending physician, Dr Talzani, makes his assessments of each patient, and the director, Danis Tanovic, wastes no time in alerting the audience to the meaning behind the strips of coloured paper assigned to each fallen man. Mark (Colin Farrell) and David (Jamie Sivas) continue to take photos as Talzani (played by Branko Djuric, who also starred in Tanovic's directorial debut No Man's Land) dispatches every soldier in possession of a blue strip, saving him, he later goes on to say, from a prolonged death.
The setting is 1988, towards the end of the al-Anfal campaign that saw thousands of Iraqi-Kurds murdered by the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, during the latter half of the 1980s. Despite only playing a minor role, Duric is magnificent as the Kurdish doctor who, short on time during periods of sustained violence, must make life and death decisions about his many patients. Visibly traumatised by this procedure, best friends Mark and David get ready to head home - but not before making one last journey outside the camp for photo opportunities. Following another brutal incident they are seen parting ways - the latter, about to become a father, unwilling to stay in harm's way.
The next scene quickly cuts to a very badly injured Mark - being tended to by Talzani. Unaware of how he sustained his wounds, the photographer eventually returns home to Ireland a changed man - much to the worry of his girlfriend, Elena (Paz Vega). The action then moves from the war zone to Mark's hometown, and switches its focus to Mark's mental decline. It emerges that David never returned home, and his whereabouts are unknown.
Based on the novel of the same name, by the veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson, Triage is thought-provoking and riveting - right up until Mark's injury. Once the fighting - and Dr Talzani - have been taken out of the picture, Tanovic's war drama loses some of its bite. Tanovic is, of course, no stranger to the topic of war. Born in Bosnia, his experience documenting the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s influenced No Man's Land (2001). Set during the Bosnian War, the drama swept up at all the subsequent major film festivals and award ceremonies - picking up the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as winning Best Screenplay at Cannes.
Farrell put himself through a gruelling regime in order to lose 40lbs for the role (supposedly surviving on a diet of coffee, diet Coke and tinned tuna for several months) and is great as the observer-turned-victim of war, whose psychological issues hide a dark secret. There's also strong support from Christopher Lee, as a retired psychologist and the grandfather of Mark's girlfriend. He is pushing 90, but his age does not get in the way of another solid performance. Morales is as strong and inquisitive a character as Mark is broken and secretive - the friction between the two provides the strongest scenes in the film outside the war zone.
But despite these strengths, the ending is problematic. The majority of the film unfolds at such a slow pace that when the reason behind Mark's change in behaviour - and David's disappearance - is finally uncovered, it feels rather abrupt in comparison. Despite the star cast, Triage made little impact upon its eventual straight-to-DVD release in the UK and US. But while it may lack the originality of Tanovic's unforgettable debut, Triage provides an insightful look at the choices journalists make during wartime, and the consequences of witnessesing conflict first hand.