Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas (2013) Film Review, a movie directed by Arnaud des Pallieres, and starring Mads Mikkelsen, Melusine Mayance, David Kross, Bruno Ganz, Denis Lavant, Roxane Duran, David Bennent, Sergi Lopez, Amira Casar, Jacques Nolot
The slow, steady beat of drums pounds against the pitch-black background, which slowly opens up to a march of horses across the French countryside. Did I mention slow?
This plodding 2013 Cannes Film Festival entry screened in competition. It even competed for the top prize: the Palme d’Or; it comes as no surprise that it lost (Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) took it home).
The film is based on an 1808 novella by Heinrich von Kleist and attempts to explore themes of justice, family, and religion. After Michael Kohlhaas (Mads Mikkelsen, from NBC’s “Hannibal” (2013)) is forced to leave two of his prized black horses as collateral to cross some land, he expects to get them back upon presenting a permit. When he attempts to do so, he finds that the Baron’s (Swann Arlaud) stable does, indeed, contain two black horses – but they aren’t his same horses. He hires a lawyer (Jacques Nolot) who takes the case to court, which throws it out three times after labeling it “reckless and baseless”. His unrelenting wife (Delphine Chuillot) convinces him to let her take his grievance to the Princess (Roxane Duran), and she returns pulseless. It is this final act that pushes the bible-believing Michael to exact his revenge on those who have stolen his property and destroyed his family.
It’s not a bad premise. The story has all the meat and character motivation to make for an involving story that challenges our concepts of ethics, justice, and morality. It’s just that the presentation is lifeless, leaving the audience uninvolved and, quite frankly, bored. The fault lies with the director, whose leadership is wandering and uninspired. The actors’ performances are particularly cold and distant, and the audience has no one and no thing to invest in. Much of the film is enveloped in award-winning cinematography (by Martin Wheeler) and that slow, steady score of drums (did I mention slow?), but a film can only pull that off if what’s happening on screen is both visually arresting and interesting (think “There Will Be Blood” (2007) or the recent 2014 Sundance Film Festival World Cinema Grand Jury Prize Winner “To Kill A Man” (2014)). In this case, it’s not.
The film achieves a small triumph, however, when a priest (Denis Lavant) confronts Michael and his band of men during a lull in their journey of revenge and destruction. It is this moment when the audience becomes involved – ever so briefly – in the priest’s penetrating and thoughtful questions to Michael: “Is [this] your idea of justice? A Christian does not wage war with a sword, he carries the burden of injustice with submission and humility.” If that level of provocation had been sustained for the two-hour running time, this film would have been a thorough joy to partake of. It’s too bad the director dropped the ball.
Hey, maybe there’ll be an American remake.
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