It's ironic that a film called The Messenger - The Story of Joan of Arc lacks a clear message. The overlong effort by writer-director Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element) jumps from idea to idea before any concept can cohere. Even the movie's striking visual lushness cannot overcome clumsy acting and a senseless screenplay.
Besson starts with great raw material. There's inherent power in the story of Jeanne (Milla Jovovich), a peasant girl who led French soldiers to victory over the English in the early 15th century. Jovovich's angular beauty alone could rally an army, with an intense brow and honey-colored skin that's flawless even coated with the muck of battle. Her lean body certainly looks good in chain mail. Yet Jovovich starts at such a high emotional pitch, hoarse and shaking when she meets the heir to the French throne, that she has nowhere to go. She plays Jeanne on one note, yelling mindlessly from her first ride on a war horse to her trial for heresy.
Actors John Malkovich as Charles VII and Faye Dunaway as Yolande of Aragon strive mightily with stereotypical characters: the weak king and conniving mother-in-law. Others in the cast sport arbitrary American, French, and British accents.
Besson expertly builds atmosphere with sweeping countryside vistas, booming sound effects, and gruesome battle scenes. Abrupt cuts and the interplay between Jeanne's visions and reality keep the viewer on edge, wondering what's really happening. That's well-chosen for a movie that questions whether Jeanne truly was a messenger of God.
The film raises some interesting themes, from the eroticism of religion to Jeanne's own self-doubt and remorse. Jeanne by turns appears to be schizophrenic, a charismatic naïf, a miracle, a populist visionary, and an angry girl avenging her sister's murder. But the story's potential is betrayed by the failure to resolve these differing views of Jeanne - or even to present them clearly.