When actors decide to direct, it’s often a dicey proposition. Some are naturals (Clint Eastwood) but others turn out films that are unwatchable, self-indulgent hokum (anyone else sit through Nicholas Cage’s “Sonny” in 2002?).
So how does Angelina Jolie do with “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” which marks her feature directing-screenwriting debut and landed her on the cover of Newsweek? It’s a respectable first effort, longer on earnestness than art, though much of that is due to her choice of topic material.
“Blood and Honey” is a drama set in Bosnia during and amidst the Bosnian War (1992-95). Jolie is well known for her involvement in global humanitarian causes, and here she takes on the notorious human-rights violations that occurred during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, including ethnic cleansing, genocide and mass rapes.
She does so through the prism of a complicated love story, one that begins in pre-war Sarajevo. That’s where Danijel (Goran Kostic), a Serbian policeman, and Ajla (Zana Marjonovic), a Bosnian artist, strike sparks while on a first date at a nightclub. As they dance cheek to cheek, their budding romance is interrupted by a bombing, a harbinger of the carnage to come. (The film is in Bosnian, with English subtitles, though Jolie also shot an English-language version.)
Soon, war has broken out and Ajla is among a group of Bosnian women taken prisoner and moved to a military barracks where Danijel is a commander. The women have been brought there to serve as both servants and forced sexual partners for the men.
Danijel takes Ajla under his protection, making clear to his men that she’s off limits to them. The resulting relationship between the two is a fraught mixture of passion and distrust, with neither ever quite sure where the other stands emotionally. It would be impossible, given the brutality and senseless violence going on all around them and their own conflicted loyalties, for it to be otherwise.
More power to Jolie, both for taking on such a demanding subject and for not trying to pretty it up or poeticize it. But the central conceit, a wartime Romeo and Juliet story, around which she has built the movie often seems an awkwardly manufactured device, one that is at odds with the film’s almost documentary-like aspirations.
As a director, Jolie avoids showy angles or camera movements and instead concentrates on telling a story. She displays a solid sense of how to build narrative momentum, though she occasionally lets a scene to stretch on too long to allow an actor an extended moment (a fault shared by many other actors turned first-time directors).
Overall, Jolie has nothing to be embarrassed about and much of which to be proud with this movie. Even in moments where the film doesn’t quite work, she shows ample evidence of ambition and a discerning director’s eye.