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Redemption loses out to endurance

by
09 January 2015

Stephen Brown on the partially told tale of Louis Zamperini

iSTOCK

TO CALL the film Unbroken (Cert. 15) "worthy" would be to damn it with faint praise. There is nothing much wrong with it as far as it goes, but that is precisely its problem.

Unlike The Railway Man (Arts, 10 January 2014), which covers similar territory, the film relates only the first (admittedly eventful) part of Louis Zamperini's "true story". He was born in 1917, and the Unbroken ends with his return to the United States in 1945. A few closing credits vaguely account for how he served God until his death last July. Perhaps I am hankering after that sequel, instead of being content with what Angelina Jolie's second stab at feature-film directing presents us with.

The film moves backwards and forwards in time. It starts with a fairly long action scene on board a US bomber, before showing Zamperini, living in California, being bullied by other boys for being Italian. He overcomes his tormentors by outshining them in running races. "If you can take it, you can make it," his brother says.

This is an attitude that leads to his becoming a participant in the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Although Jolie has spoken of how the man's faith upheld him in times of adversity, in this film we are rarely given any such information. He sits bored in church as the priest gives a rather fine homily about God creating the night-time light as well as that of day. In Jesus we learn to accept the darkness and forgive sins against us. While the prepubescent Zamperini seems totally distracted during this by a pretty woman in the opposite pew, we are given to understand that something of the Christian message will stand him in good stead later - except that it hardly surfaces again.

After their bomber is shot down, his air crew are adrift on a life raft for 47 days. It felt more like weeks to this viewer. Jack O'Connell, last seen in the superb '71 (Arts, 10 October 2014) - a latter-day telling of the Good Samaritan parable - keeps their spirits up in numerous ways, including conversations about the Creator's Grand Plan. And if surviving a record time of clinging to wreckage isn't sufficient a test of faith, their internment as enemies of Japan is even more so.

Takamasa Ishihara plays Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a non-commissioned officer who vents most of his rage on Zamperini. Is there some recognition on the captor's part of a man as divine as himself, one whom he could regard as a friend if it weren't that war had turned them into foes?

We would expect a screenplay from the Coen brothers (A Serious Man), Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King), and William Nicholson (Mandela) to offer insights into this, and why other Japanese soldiers behave as they do. All we get is the same old scenario about how beastly they were. If to understand is to forgive, this is never so much as hinted at. Nagisa Ôshima's Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983) covers similar ground, but sows seeds of future reconciliation.

The present film only relegates this to a few captions that fail to note Zamperini's long years of post-traumatic stress before he reconnected, under Billy Graham's influence, with the Christian formation of his childhood.

On general release.

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