– Summary –
Director : Bryan Singer
Cast : Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Terrence Stamp, Kenneth Brannagh, Tom Wilkinson, Eddie Izzard, Carice van Houten, Kevin McNally, David Schofield, Christian Berkel, Jamie Parker, David Bamber, Thomas Kretschmann, Harvey Friedman, Tom Hollander, Bernard Hill, Ian McNeice.
Year of Release : 2008
Length : 120 Minutes
Synopsis: A group of German soldiers formulate a plan to assassinate Hitler during World War II. When they put their plan into operation, a dangerous game of cat and mouse ensues.
Review : Well made, although emotionally empty, WWII thriller sees Tom Cruise return to form and demonstrate his accomplished ability as an actor. Bill Nighy steals the show, as Bryan Singer delivers a steady, but plain, cinematic treat.
Looney Tooney Tom Cruise returns to the big screen in this low key dramatic thriller from Superman Returns director Bryan Singer, Valkyrie. Telling the story of one of the many unsuccessful assassination attempts on Hitler, Valkyrie tries to give us a glimpse into a world not too many people have really considered: that not all Germans were with the Nazis during WWII. Cruise plays Colonel Claus Von Stauffenberg, a wartime hero of the Nazi’s who rose up to become a veritable poster-boy for anti-Nazi sentiment within the German military ranks.
Valkyrie, while an essential history lesson for us all, is not without it’s faults, more on which later. First, I’d like to point out that anybody who goes into this film thinking that the plot to kill Hitler succeeds, are going to be sorely disappointed. In a similar fashion to Titanic, where we all know the boat sinks by the end of the film, with Valkyrie we are also in a difficult position, as the free world is aware Hitler cowardly committed suicide towards the end of the War, thus making the key plot of the film almost redundant to maintain. Second, this is a film financed with Hollywood money, starring big name Hollywood and British actors in roles that almost scream out to be played by real German actors. With this in mind, it’s a little disconcerting to be listening to the dulcet British tones of Tom Wilkinson, Terrence Stamp and Bill Nighy as Good Nazi’s. The film begins in German, with Tom Cruise speaking the language while reciting a letter he’s writing. The vocals then transpose into English, and that’s the way it progresses through the film. It’s a weird kind of Enemy At The Gates sensation, with all kinds of weird accents coming together to speak English instead of German. Cruise’s accent never wavers from Good Old Boy American, which might put some people off, but he’s convincing in the role, and this obvious cinematic device is overlooked in favour of some wonderful performances.
The fact of the matter is that Hitler had many varied attempts on his life, and not always by the more obvious choices, like the French and British secret service. No, even his own countrymen, his own officers, tried to take him out. Perhaps it’s history’s greatest injustice that he never met his fate at the hands of one of his victims; even through this film, the inevitability of fate hangs over proceedings like a dark, damp blanket of oppression. Valkyrie is not an easy film to “enjoy”, although it is surprisingly good. I say surprisingly since I assumed this would be yet another Cruise vanity project, another way of him getting his name above the title and back into the good books of audiences around the world, who looked upon him as a bit of a fruitcake since his recent public acclamations for Scientology and his couch jumping episode. That said, Cruise is in phenomenal form here, a subtle, low key performance that indicates once again just how good an actor the man truly is. Regardless of his beliefs and crazy, crazy antics off-screen, the man can pick, and perform, a role unlike any other. His Von Stauffenberg is wounded, vengeful and almost heroic (if he wasn’t a Nazi, you’d lift him up and drink his health!) a far cry from the toothy, buffed, gun-toting heroics of Mission Impossible, Top Gun or (ugh) Days Of Thunder. Cruise is sublime here, his Von Stauffenberg truly a vulnerable, emotional character, although I think director Bryan Singer found it difficult to really let this shine through. Valkyrie is more an ensemble piece than a Cruise starrer, Cruise is easily outclassed by other, more talented actors in the film, yet he still gives it his all, and while perhaps the film may resound with the hollow overtones of historical “what ifs”, each and every actor in the movie is in tip-top form.
Cruise aside, Bill Nighy steals this movie from the big name star. For me, it’s his performance that perfectly encapsulates the fear, the anxiety, the utter desperation and human frailty of daring to commit a treasonous act against such a towering figure as Hitler. Nighy plays General Olbricht, one of the military personnel who is portrayed as a leader of the “resistance” movement to kill the big man. Olbricht is a man conflicted, and fearful when the critical moment comes, and it’s his role that ultimately, determines the outcome of the mission. For me, Nighy is the best actor in the whole film.
Tom Wilkinson is sublime as the slimy, not-sure-which-side-he’s-on General Fromm, a belligerent, self-obsessed individual who will ultimately choose his side depending on what he stands to gain from either combatant. Terrence Stamp, Kenneth Brannagh, Thomas Kretschmann (the ships captain on King Kong) and Eddie Izzard fill out other supporting roles, and the film boasts a staggeringly decent cast around them, making this one of the sure fire acting triumphs of the year. Yet, for some reason, the film manages to overlook the acting, and concentrate more on the suspense and intrigue of the failed coup de tat from the insurrectionists.
Singers deft handling of the assassination, the thrill and tension, the last minute changes and the sweaty palms of the key cast, all are superbly executed. Hitler is portrayed as slightly older than I expected, David Bamber bringing a Hunchback Of Notre Dame quality to the evil dictator, in what is essentially an extended cameo. Black Book’s Carice Van Houten plays Von Stauffenberg’s wife, Nina, in a role that I felt was left largely underdeveloped. Von Stauffenberg’s family situation was of great interest to me, considering the man’s intended actions, and I would have loved to see a little more development in this segment of the film. Van Houten was, I felt, short-changed by a limited role, and while perhaps gaining the actress more eyes on her by being in a US film, it wasn’t really a role worthy of her talent. For those interested in seeing “more” of her, I suggest checking out the wonderful Black Book, a film directed by Paul Verhoeven, or the recent Ridley Scott flick, Body Of Lies.
Valkryie is a more complex film than I had expected, to be honest. I thought that after the failure of the assassination, the film would end: it doesn’t, and you get a sense that these guys are almost, almost, going to succeed. But they cannot, as historical fact takes precedence over Hollywood fictionalisation. To say Bryan Singer has crafted a well made, taut dissection on the particular events in question is undeniable, and while the production values of the film are truly first rate: there’s one major issue that I have to contend the film over.
The characters lack a little…. definition. There’s a point in the film where, towards the end, you start to feel a little blase about their fates. You know the guns are coming, and yet, for all the films guile and style, it simply doesn’t draw you in. That’s not to say the film sucks, because it doesn’t, however, it didn’t grab me emotionally like I thought it should. Perhaps it’s the fact that these people are still Nazis, regardless of accents, and perhaps that’s too big a hill to overcome for many. After all, feeling sorry for a Nazi isn’t exactly in most people’s emotional handbag, is it? Still, Cruise and Co try valiantly to make these people into heroes, and while they succeed at an instantaneous level, at a more deeper moment there’s an emptiness, a hollowness, that the film contains, which is disappointing. I felt like I was half watching a documentary, half watching a great film.
Bryan Singer is a great director, that much is certain. Whether he’s a great director yet remains to be seen, but I think if continues to make decent, competent films like this, then eventually he’ll produce something truly wonderful. I say this with the greatest respect, but I don’t think he’s found his directorial niche yet, and I still remain unconvinced of his ability to endure, like a truly great director can. X-Men and The Usual Suspects were great films, however, following them up with Superman Returns, and now this somewhat confused directorial effort (it’s good, but not brilliant!) has tarnished the shine somewhat. Valkyrie is not a brilliant film, by no stretch. It’s compelling, yes. It’s convincing, yes. It’s moving… well, a little. But the emotional depth the characters in Valkyrie possess are not enough to emotionally hook us into the film. And that’s the measure of a good film: do we care? Knowing the outcome hamstrings Singer a little, and that’s annoying, but the joy of this film in particular should have been in the telling, not the outcome, and I think Valkyrie misses the mark a little in this regard.
Valkyrie is a solid, careful filmmaking from a director who is obviously trying to stretch his wings creatively: Singer’s attention to detail and ability to craft wonderful sequences of imagery is worthy of any award you care to name, however, in this instance, it’s his inability to drag us into the characters, rather than the events, that prevents this film from rising above merely good into the realm of greatness. Worth a look, but perhaps not worth much more than that.