It’s been a bumpy couple of decades for Roland Joffé. A two-time Oscar-nominated director (for 1984’s The Killing Fields and 1986’s The Mission), Joffé’s more recently been responsible for the notorious box-office bomb The Scarlet Letter; the MTV soap Undressed; the torture porn venture Captivity; and You and I, a teen drama inspired by and featuring the late Russian faux-lesbian pop duo t.A.T.u.
Placed against those projects, There Be Dragons all but glows with would-be prestige: It’s a historical epic tracking the very different paths of two childhood friends through the Spanish Civil War, with a present-day framing story in which the adult son of one of those boys tries to reconcile with his aging father and learn about his past. The catch is that the other boy is Josemaría Escrivá (played by Charlie Cox), the Roman Catholic priest who founded Opus Dei. Opus Dei brought the film together and is responsible for partially funding it—given that the group’s last prominent screen placement was Paul Bettany’s murderous albino in The Da Vinci Code, they were likely eager for some positive spin.
Joffé has said in interviews that he was given complete creative control, and he replaced the original script with one he wrote himself. But he struggles mightily with how to depict a literal saint (Escrivá was canonized in 2002) who according to the film did no wrong. Cox beams beatifically as he ministers to the sick, stays up all night considering God’s plan, and flees anti-church sentiment, but he’s a completely static character. His conception of Opus Dei occurs the way a eureka moment would in a scientific biopic, but the film gives little sense of what the group actually does, or of the sometimes controversial organization it’s become.
In contrast, the fictional Manolo (Wes Bentley) misbehaves enough for two people, becoming a spy in a guerilla group and betraying their location to the Nationalists, and falling in love with a Hungarian revolutionary (Olga Kurylenko) whom he pursues fruitlessly and cruelly. The schematic pairing of the two men seems particularly forced given how little their lives touch; the climactic reveal of one of those intersections turns out to be anything but, exposing instead how much Bentley is there to provide a dramatic arc for a true story that apparently has none.
There Be Dragons certainly looks lavish, from the battle scenes to the beautiful period costuming, but it’s so stilted and humorless that it’s almost campy. It might have helped to have a wink to the vague foreign accents everyone adopts to denote the film takes place in Spain, though perhaps the only way to deliver a line like “a Communist strike killed my father—now it was my turn to strike!” is with an absolutely straight face.