(Denis Tanovic, 2009)
War Correspondant dramas were common in the 1980s. Under Fire, The Killing Fields, The Year of Living Dangerously, Salvador; all focused on Western journalists in South East Asia or Central America, as if the only way for audiences in the first world to relate to the experiences of the people actually living and dying in Cambodia or El Salvador was for us to see one of us there, being traumatised by man's inhumanity to man. Well, Denis Tanovic's Shell Shock tells the story of a War Photographer and his suffering. And it's even set in the 1980s - meaning Dublin is dressed up in "The Joshua Tree" posters and buses that haven't been seen on its streets in over a decade and the nightclub scene features New Order as the background music - during the most infamous conflict between Sadaam Hussein's Iraq and the Kurds.
But it lacks the rage or the artistry of any of the films I mention above. Only the first act takes place in Kurdistan, and it is the best material in the film, highlighting the awkwardness inherent in taking photos of people suffering and dying only feet away. But it is also over-familiar, visually and dramatically, the usual grittily-shot desert scrub filled with grimy bodies, the struggle back to life from serious injury, Colin Farrell suffering beautifully with greasy hair and a beard.
The rest of the film, however, is utterly drab by contrast. As an attempt to portray post-traumatic stress disorder, it settles on a curiously confined setting in a depopulated Dublin, shot clinically but without any sense of style or any real visual interest.
Farrell's performance is partly to blame. Always most effective when asked to let his natural charm and charisma shine through - as he does in early scenes here- his interpretation of numbness is to do nothing. His face is immobile, his eyes blank. He can play mournful and has done so successfully in several films, but this is lower wattage and he hasn't got the wit or experience to make such a one note performance interesting. Paz Vega brings little to a nothing "girlfriend" role, leaving a scenery-chewing Chrisopher Lee as easily the best thing in the film, delivering tons of dialogue in a Spanish accent and plainly having a rare old time.
He is not enough to rescue the film, which has already settled into it's stiff, oh-so-serious torpor by the time he arrives. The last act revelations and flashbacks are predictable and banal, and it's all mediocre enough to make me wonder if the film that brought Tanovic to prominence, Yugoslav War black comedy drama No Mans Land, is as good as I remember.