A tie with White Irish Drinkers for the year-so-far’s most curious title, There Be Dragons is another unexpected twist in director Roland Joffe’s bizarre career. After making a name with stodgy, tasteful epics like The Killing Fields and The Mission, this Englishman segued into tasteful titilation by desecrating and Demi-Moore-izing The Scarlet Letter, then into full-on titilation with the unloved MTV teen show Undressed. In between he produced and partly directed the Super Mario Bros. movie. His official follow-up to the torture porn Captivity—with his t.A.T.u. movie You and I, filmed in 2006, still languishing on a dusty shelf somewhere—is a reckless return to the glory days: a costly international religious saga that, sadly, intends its title to be taken as mere metaphor.
In a mostly ignored wraparound story that largely exists to put Wes Bentley in funny old man makeup, fellow ‘90s casualty Dougray Scott plays a lightly accented Spanish journo whose research reveals that his sickly estranged father Manolo (Bentley) grew up with Josemaria Escriva, the Catholic priest, Opus Dei-founder and candidate for sainthood. (He was canonized in 2002.) Bentley flashes back to his youth, when the two kids took separate paths: Manolo to fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Josemaria (Charlie Cox) to priesthood.
Say this for There Be Dragons: Save some borderline-TBN-worthy moments in the final stretch, it’s the rare religious film that takes religion seriously without cornily flattering the religious. Alas, it misses an opportunity to cogently explore religion’s role during war. Lifelessly played by Cox, Josemaria is never more than a bland pacifist, the party-pooper amongst a cast of fiery revolutionaries. In any case, his narrative—and how his experiences shaped the beliefs for which he would be sainted - winds up pushed to the background so as to focus on Manolo, who suffers the far more gripping story of falling for a girl (Olga Kurylenko) who doesn’t love him back. Clocking in at a clearly-gutted two hours, its running time padded out with generic war scenes, There Be Dragons winds up as overwrought and unfulfilling as its title.