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Rosamund Pike has played everything from a Bond girl to a Gone Girl, the latter of which brought her a best actress Oscar nomination four seasons ago, but she has never given a better — or more Oscar-friendly — performance than she does as the legendary war correspondent Marie Colvin in Matthew Heineman‘s narrative directorial debut A Private War, which will have its world premiere Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film, which I caught at a pre-fest screening several weeks ago in Los Angeles, and which Heineman only recently put the finishing touches on, was added to the TIFF lineup last week after Melanie Laurent‘s Galveston was booted because its principal talent was unavailable to attend its premiere.
Heineman, best known for two gritty documentary features — Oscar nominee Cartel Land (2015) and City of Ghosts (2017) — has, appropriately enough, told Colvin’s story in a docudrama format. Filmed by three-time cinematography Oscar winner Robert Richardson, largely on real locations throughout the Middle East, where Colvin reported from war zones for years, it conveys the sort of hellish scenarios into which Colvin inserted herself even as most other people ran in the other direction. (Think of it as a modern version of William Wellman‘s 1945 Ernie Pyle portrait The Story of G.I. Joe — which, incidentally, wound up with four Oscar nominations.)
Thanks to Pike’s performance, we see the toll that this sort of a life took on Colvin — why her personal life was usually in a shambles; why she wound up wearing an eye patch and standing increasingly hunched over; and why she wound up afflicted with PTSD. The root of Colvin’s compulsion to venture into war zones seems to be partly logical (a sense of obligation to bear witness and give voice to the voiceless), but also partly not (she seems to feel most alive when death is lurking right around the corner). This makes her a frustrating protagonist since the end of her story can be spotted a mile away even by people not already familiar with it. Still, this is the way she was — just ask her close friend, the photographer Paul Conroy, who is portrayed by 50 Shades of Grey‘s Jamie Dornan in a nice understated turn — so it makes sense to be frustrated with the person, not the film.
The biggest awards-related question about A Private War — which Arash Amel adapted from Marie Brenner’s 2012 Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War” — is not whether Pike does awards-worthy work, but whether Aviron Pictures, David Dinerstein‘s new distribution company, can get awards voters to see it — both logistically (does Aviron have the resources to heavily screen and promote it?) and in terms of messaging (can Aviron convince people to go see a dark film when everyday reality itself is so dark?).
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