When a film gets bounced around the schedules in the manner that Valkyrie has been, you instantly get suspicious. When it features a major movie star in it, replete with material that you could safely call outside of their comfort zone, those suspicions can’t help but be heightened. And, bluntly, when Valkyrie finally took to American screens back in December, there were many knives being sharpened.
And how those that wielded them must have been disappointed. For while the film is no classic, thanks to a collection of problems we’ll come to shortly, it is a quite good telling of a really quite extraordinary story.
It’s a film that shoots out of the gates at some speed, too, thanks to a sequence that decimates many soldiers, and costs Colonel Claus von Strauffenberg – played by Tom Cruise – his eye, a hand and some fingers.
It’s the first time we meet the character, although in lieu of backstory, we’re asked to assume that he hates Hitler, and wants to see him overthrown. It’s not the biggest leap of faith to make, but a bit more meat on his background wouldn’t hurt.
Von Strauffenberg is not alone in his wish to assassinate Hitler, as there’s a line up of other German officers plotting to do the same. Von Strauffenberg ultimately joins up with them for what would prove to be the last attempt on Hitler’s life, and his comrades in his mission prove to be a veritable who’s who of British thesps. Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard, Bill Nighy and Tom Hollander don’t, however, get a great deal of time to develop their characters, although Wilkinson comes out the best.
All, however, are hampered by a creative choice with regards accents. Rather than the cast attempting German accents, a brief narration at the start from Cruise switches the language from German to English, and we’re then expected to buy a gaggle of German officers speaking with at times quite posh English accents. It doesn’t really work, not least because then in come some characters who do have German accents anyway!
What does work though is the staging of some of the sequences, and the tension they generate. The build up to the assassination attempt is a credit to director Bryan Singer, who – in conjunction with screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander – put the jigsaw pieces together with real skill. And, even though you’re likely to know how the story ends, it still keeps you pulling for the conspirators.
However, Valkyrie is quite a bumpy film. Cruise is okay in the lead role, but you do hanker for a performance with a bit more gravitas to it. Likewise, it takes some time for the drama to hit its stride, once the opening sequence and an initial assassination attempt are out of the way. These problems are contrasted by some terrific moments, and as the film hits its third act, it really hits its stride.
Yet ultimately, it’s a film that’s better than the pre-press may have given it credit for, but not the outstanding telling of a remarkable story you may have been hoping for. Reputations remain in-tact, a terrific story is told, but perhaps the definitive telling of this tale is still somewhere in the future.
23 January 2009