Monday, February 09, 2009

VALKYRIE: For War Movie Fans

VALKYRIE (war drama)
Cast: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard, Kevin McNally, Jamie Parker and David Bamber

Directed by Bryan Singer
Time: 120 mins
Rating: * * * (3 out of 4 stars)

PREAMBLE: Spoilers be damned. Valkyrie is about a plot by a group of disillusioned German officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Its outcome is etched in history, so it does not make any difference if I give away the ending and say that the July 20, 1944 plot ended with more than 5,000 arrests and 200 executions of the plotters and supporters. And the Nazi dictator was still alive.

Indeed, whether you know the outcome or not, director Bryan Singer has structured
Valkyrie in such a way that it gradually builds up to a tension-filled war thriller - just like the build-up in Richard Wagner's composition Ride of the Valkyries on which 'Operation Valkyrie' was based. And since Singer knew he could not squeeze suspense from a 'Will the plot succeed?' scenario, he opted for a 'How things went wrong' one instead.

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? The movie centres around Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise, pictured), a proud German officer whose patriotism puts him at odds with Hitler's inhumane practices. After being wounded in a battle in Tunisia, Stauffenberg is promoted into Hitler's (David Bamber) inner circle— and is immediately approached by a group of conspirators trying to get rid of the Fuehrer. The group's previous attempt to blow up the Nazi leader with a bomb hidden in a bottle of French liqueur turned out to be a dud.

Their next mission, codenamed Operation Valkyrie, is not only to assassinate Hitler but also to put the blame on his SS Guards, and mobilise his Reserve Forces in Berlin. The brains behind the plot, General Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy) and Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) pick Stauffenberg to lead the operation because he has fresh ideas to offer and because he is able to get things moving.

HITS AND MISSES: As can be expected of conspiracies, the planning takes patience. Singer takes his time to lay the groundwork, and introduce the secondary characters (like Stauffenberg's wife played by Carice van Houten) and children. He also needs to acquaint us with fence-sitters like General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) and show us how the plot is supposed to be carried out.

However, as soon as the plot is set in motion and the bomb explodes, the pace turns frantic and frenetic. Stauffenberg earnestly believes that the Fuehrer is dead and the country is plunged into confusion and chaos.
For me, the pay-off justifies the time and patience invested in the first one-and-a-half hour of this two-hour film. And if we have to talk about flaws, it is probably the ease in which the conspiracy is being planned - with none of Hitler's men being any wiser. Cruise does a good job of bringing Stauffenberg to life, and even looks like the colonel himself. To lend an air of realism to the movie, Singer has Cruise narrating in German and then slowly easing into English for the benefit of the audience. Other members of the cast comprise the cream of British and European cinema veterans and provide top notch performances.

THE LOWDOWN: Valkyrie should be an absorbing treat for history buffs and fans of war movies.


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