Blocked 'Borders'

By Jen Chaney
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 24, 2003

ANGELINA JOLIE has laid down her arms.

At least she has momentarily done so in "Beyond Borders," a sprawling and unconvincing love story. In it, the Oscar-winning actress moves away from her alpha-female Lara Croft persona and into the role of Sarah Jordan, a woman compelled to devote her life to refugee relief work. Like Lara, Sarah wants to save the world. But she chooses to do it by feeding mouths rather than kicking butts.

Unfortunately, neither Jolie nor her co-star, the rugged Clive Owen, can save this well-intentioned but astonishingly flat movie, which sinks beneath the weight of romantic cliches and pat plot developments that conveniently send Jolie's character to nearly as many war-torn corners of the globe as U2's Bono.

This young-humanitarians-in-love story begins in 1984 at a London charity ball, where Sarah and her husband, Henry Bauford (Linus Roache), are among the many formally dressed revelers on hand to honor Henry's father, the head of an international nonprofit. The party gets crashed abruptly by Nick Callahan (Owen), a renegade doctor who harshly demands increased funding for the impoverished areas where he works, bringing along an emaciated African boy as a visual aid. After vilifying everyone present, Dr. Nick is hauled off by the authorities, but not before the camera closes in on Sarah's stricken, tear-streaked face. As the song "We Are the World" told us during this same era, "There comes a time / When we heed a certain call." This, apparently, is Sarah's time.

In short order, she's off to Africa -- wearing a pearl-white, Audrey Hepburn-esque ensemble, natch -- where she saves a dying child and comes face to face with Nick, who's hardly happy to see her privileged puss. If the movies have taught us anything, though, it's that two actors with such supple sets of lips are destined to kiss. Indeed, the inevitable attraction between the two altruists lays the foundation for the rest of the movie, which unfolds over a decade and takes Sarah to Cambodia and Chechnya.

In a better movie, Jolie and Owen could have made a smoldering couple. But here, thanks to a contrived screenplay, it's difficult to care whether they hook up or break up. Despite the actors' best efforts, neither of the characters comes across as particularly likable. Sarah's disregard for her young children -- whom she thoughtlessly leaves behind every time she impulsively travels to the destitute spot of the moment -- is particularly self-absorbed. In the end, Sarah and Nick seem more obsessed with each other than with the needy people they're supposed to help.

Director Martin Campbell succeeds occasionally in his attempts to convey the horrors and frustrations that dog the lives of do-gooders. The scenes set in Africa, for example, provide telling glimpses of what it's like to work in a place where finding space to bury more bodies is a commonplace concern. A deeper and more careful examination of these themes, and less of the love story, might have made this a more credible piece of cinema.

Of course, it's impossible to watch "Beyond Borders" without being reminded of Jolie's own charitable efforts. Her involvement in this film is what sparked her interest in relief work, which eventually led to her appointment as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Her commitment to humanitarian causes, by all appearances, is steadfast and sincere. For that she deserves great praise, something that "Beyond Borders" doesn't manage to earn.

BEYOND BORDERS (R, 127 minutes) -- Contains rough language and war-related violence. Area theaters.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company