Film reviews

Joan of Arc (1999) – Blu-ray Review

Joan of Arc is receiving a new Blu-ray release from Studiocanal, bringing the often overlooked Luc Besson film to a whole new audience. Telling the story of real life war hero and saint, Joan of Arc. Like all films based on historical events, this one takes some liberties, but never feels like it’s making huge leaps or trying to bend events too far.

The film follows Joan (Milla Jovovich) from her childhood to her eventual death, though focuses on only certain aspects of her life. It begins with Joan as a child living in a small village with her family. She’s already clearly very religious, and cares deeply about God. She’s also already having visions of a young boy in white sitting on a throne, a being who speaks to her, telling her to be a good person and do kind things. Unfortunately, when the English attack her village she witnesses her older sister’s murder and rape (in that order), and develops a deep hatred for the English.

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Jumping several years ahead, Joan is now a young woman who has already inspired many of the peasants across France, which grants her an audience with the Dauphin and future king, Charles VII (John Malkovich). After meeting with her and believing that Joan has been sent by God, Charles gives Joan an army to travel to Orleans, which is under siege by the English. From here, Joan leads a military campaign that pushes the English back and wins Charles his crown. However, when Joan is captured by the English she’s put on trial for heresy, and after being found guilty she’s burnt at the stake.

It’s a story that many will be familiar with, if not all the details, at least the broad strokes. And the film only really pays attention to the broad strokes of Joan’s life. It jumps from her childhood to several years later, and after a large portion being focused on the siege of Orleans it moves on to showing her as a general without a real war to fight. The film doesn’t get bogged down in the details, or spend time on every single event, because it’s not really a story about Joan’s life, but of the trauma that she goes through.

Luc Besson has said in the book The Films of Luc Bessson that he wanted to follow Joan emotionally, to show her doubts, and to show that people never really come home from war. And the film really manages to capture that. We see the highs of Joan taking Orleans, of her being a hero to the people, of securing the King’s crown, to being pushed aside, left without troops, without a real enemy to fight. It’s a stark shift, and we see how this has affected Joan and her mind. It’s a harsh shift, but only really the beginning of the end.

Before this, the film also has a pretty good depiction of the siege of Orleans, yet thanks to having been spoilt by huge battles in things like Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings it does feel very small, and a little like a reenactment at times. I’m not sure how well these scenes would have played at the time, but watching the film now, they’re definitely the weakest part in comparison to the emotional journey of Joan.

The end of the film focuses on the trial that she faced at the hands of the English, and thanks to extensive records having survived, mirrors some of these events. We see the church try to back her into corners, to trip her up into saying the wrong thing. And she so nearly makes it through the trial; and even though we know her ultimate end it’s still heart breaking to see her do everything right, yet still be condemned.

It’s during these moments that the film does something really interesting too, and gives a physical embodiment to the voice in her head. Credited as The Conscience, this hooded figure begins to challenge her views of what she’s been through, making her question if she had ever heard God or if she was just making it all up. The Conscience is a great manifestation of her internal struggle, and is played masterfully by Dustin Hoffman, taking something that could have been a bit silly and over the top and grounding it.

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The film ends on a very down note, with the last scene being Joan burning to death. Part of me thought that it could have done with something else at the end, possibly to try and take away from this sad end, but this isn’t really a story that could end any other way. It’s a young woman whose faith was hugely important to her, that helped her to achieve amazing things, helped her to secure a kingdom, but resulted in her horrific death at only nineteen. You can’t make that into something happy, but Luc Besson manages to make it into something impactful, and that will stick with you for a while after watching it.

Joan of Arc is out now on Blu-ray , DVD and Digital Download from Studiocanal.

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