Thursday, February 08, 2007

Blood Diamond

Blood Diamond is set in Sierra Leone in 1999, a time when the country was in the midst of a bloody civil war. The R.U.F. (militia rebels) terrorised the country's civilian population, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands, and displacing millions. The cause of the conflict was the rich deposit of diamond reserves held by the poor African country, which under international law, came to be known as 'conflict diamonds'. This same law made it illegal to import diamonds from countries in conflict such as Sierra Leone.

This type of situation attracts opportunists, mercenaries such as Danny Archer (Leonardo Di Caprio) willing to transport the diamonds across the border to neighbouring Liberia, where customs officials can be paid off in order to rubber-stamp the origin of the diamonds as Liberian, which in turn means the gems can be exported to first world nations, and made into nice necklaces, rings and other assorted items of 'bling'.

The thing is, the R.U.F. in civil war Sierra Leone used the country's own people to mine the diamonds. Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) is captured by the militia, separated from his family, and sent to work in one of these diamond mines by the rebels. He unearths the titular Blood Diamond - a 100 carat diamond the size of an egg - a milky gem worth a significant fortune. Solomon just about manages to bury the diamond as the camp is attacked by the army, and all non R.U.F. survivors are imprisoned.

Unfortunately for him, Archer too is imprisoned for smuggling diamonds across the Sierra Leone-Liberian border in what can only be described as strange cargo. While in prison, Archer's attention is drawn to Solomon's story, and he takes it upon himself to try and track down this blood diamond, for his own nefarious purposes.

After getting bailed out, Archer stumbles across Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) an American journalist reporting on the conflict in Sierra Leone. These two characters quickly come to represent an interesting reflection of the conflicting outsider views towards the internal struggles of African peoples. Maddy is conscientious, a lefty journalist, who believes that simply by being there and reporting to the latte-drinking, interest-rate-discussing people back home, she may be able to make a difference. By contrast, Archer is a grizzled former soldier from Zimbabwe, or Rhodesia as he insists on calling it. After fleeing Rhodesia, he joined the South African army, and fought in Angola. He claims to have seen it all before, and is uninterested in making a difference to the outcome of the conflict, only taking what he can from it before it all explodes.

Solomon's wish to be reunited with his family is Archer's leverage to get to the diamond, but at the same time, Solomon believes he can use Archer to track down his son, now a soldier with the militia. When the militia's marching forces invade Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, the two are forced together, Solomon needing this soldier's survival skills, and Archer only thinking of the diamond. Maddy, on the other hand is drawn into their story as a covert means of transport to the diamond mine, in return for a tell-all story from Archer on the people behind the diamond trade.

In a telling scene, Maddy describes her efforts at describing the carnage she is seeing. She admits her reportage may be pointless, that severed limbs, displaced families, and burning African villages simply has no impact on first world readers any more. The phrase is not used, but she is referring to the first world audience and their 'compassion fatigue' when it comes to African struggles. If they are not like-minded with her, in other words, if they think like Archer, how can she convince them of the damage being done in this country? And even if the're willing to make a difference, what can they do anyway? This movie valiantly attempts to explore whether there are in fact answers to these difficult questions.

Blood Diamond is beautifully shot, set against the backdrop of a collection of colourful African rural and urban landscapes. Coastal villages are bathed in sunlight, the dark jungles loaded with shapeless threats, the night-time flame-lit parties in the militia bases ominous and fraught with tension, but the many treks through the countryside are framed by breathtakingly beautiful natural scenery, all captured with real verve by cinematographer Edoardo Serra, and director Edward Zwick.

The three leads are impressive, and Charles Leavitt's script weaves the contrasting beliefs of this trio of characters, and their developing relationships with each other on two levels. At the basic level of the story, they are drawn together through their links to Solomon's diamond, and this yarn is interesting enough in and of itself. However, each lead character acts as a symbol of either Africa or of how Africa is percieved by the outside world, and this layer is subtly transposed onto proceedings in a way that never dominates the action.

The action scenes too, are tense, exciting and on a large scale. Director Ed Zwick is an old hand at directing the thick of battleground action, having taken the helm of 'Glory', 'Courage Under Fire' and 'The Last Samurai'. The shoot-outs are immediate and realistic, and the main players are forced into a physical involvement in the action that immerses the viewer.

Although diamonds were the catalyst for the war in Sierra Leone, and the blood diamond the trigger for the events in the movie, the more viscerally explored theme of the film relates to child soldiers. As the old Mende teacher (played all too briefly by Winston Ntshona) explains in the movie, infantry means 'child soldier', and many child soldiers were used in the war in Sierra Leone. The 'recruitment' methods of the militia are explored on screen, and these scenes are among the most emotive of the movie. These children are separated from their families and become brainwashed into fighting for - and most likely dying for - the cause of the rebels.

'The Last King of Scotland' touched on themes of African political instability, and portrayed events from Idi Amin's perspective, or at least from the perspective of the cossetted bosom of the presidential palace. Blood Diamond, by contrast, plunges us deep into the real madness, and we are there at ground level, witnessing all the bloody carnage.

Put aside your unreasonable dislike of Leo, he doesn't deserve it. DiCaprio is maturing as an actor with every new outing, and this role is another step forward for him, and better than his turn in 'The Departed'. Even from behind the constraint of a Zim accent (pretty much Sith Ifrican here) he delivers a powerful, rounded and mature peformance, and is believable as the hard-hearted refugee, who has become so cold and cynical to African events, that when he witnesses another tragic event that is difficult to comprehend, he simply shrugs and says 'T.I.A.', or 'this is Africa'. (In 'Saving Private Ryan', the same device was employed, only it was FUBAR - Ed).

Jennifer Connelly must surely now be recognised not only as the most beautiful actress of our generation, but as a genuine talent with a lot more to offer than just a pretty face. Her role is the most difficult to pull off, as she is intended to be the antidote to DiCaprio's deep-seated cynicism, but on a more basic level, it is understandable that she might be able to defrost DiCaprio's heart.

And Djimon Hounsou, who most of you will remember from 'Gladiator', is brilliant. His performance varies from being subtly played, in particular the scenes with his son, to the more outward displays of emotion he directs at DiCaprio, but he manages to make it all believable. In particular, PCMR will remember his 'berserker' moment towards the end, where I was sure I saw the fires of hell in his eyes. Excellent stuff.

I would have given this a higher rating, but unfortunately, the last five minutes of the movie had to go and let it down, but only slightly. It may have been a concession made by the film-makers considering how much else they got to show on-screen, but the formulaic last scenes jarred slightly with me, no matter how much I liked the characters involved by then.

So, it's a true gem of a movie this one, and unfortunately Blood Diamond could very easily be buried in the hype surrounding the other oscar nominated movies, such as Babel, Last King of Scotland or The Queen. However, I would argue that - even purely on the level of entertainment - this one would give any of those three a run for their money. In PCMR's book, Blood Diamond is well worth a look.

The verdict: Visceral, powerful, entertaining and emotive. This is proper cinema. Go see it.
The rating: 8/10

1 comment:

Grayam said...

Very good acting, very well filmed but the story and message wears a bit thin in parts.

I wouldn't say people have an inherent dislike of DiCaprio, I think he's a great actor and Connelly is tasty but she's still no Angelina.


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