Pauline Kael once wrote that A Man for All Seasons, the lauded play and Oscar-winning film about the martyrdom of Catholic saint Thomas More, made for minor drama in part because author Robert Bolt had given More “all the good lines.” Writer-director Roland Joffé, who filmed Bolt’s subsequent men-of-God-at-war script for The Mission, is at a bigger disadvantage with his Spanish Civil War quasi-epic There Be Dragons: He hasn’t given anybody good lines, not even the saint—only platitudes and expository gas.
Striving to be a transcendent tale of war and forgiveness, fathers and sons, and a dying man’s confession, There Be Dragons is hamstrung by a decades-spanning, bifurcated narrative whose dual protagonists—the humble priest Josemaría Escrivá (bland Charlie Cox), founder of the Opus Dei movement, and his fictionalized seminary classmate, Manolo Torres (Wes Bentley, with a perpetual glower plus an egregious accent charged with narrating, for the love of España)—take separate paths as Spain’s generals rise up against the left-wing government in the mid 1930s. Joffé frames this undercooked period potboiler with the 40-years-later crisis of Manolo’s journalist son (Dougray Scott), whose research on Escrivá’s life yields mysteries about the churchman’s connection to his father, who lies dying and remorseful in a Madrid hospital—and is inexplicably still played by Bentley, though his Mandy Patinkin Princess Bride cadences are at least muffled by equally unconvincing old-age prosthetics. Manolo, departing the seminary and blaming his industrialist father’s death on the rising power of unions, kills on behalf of the nationalists and infiltrates the republican rebel forces as a spy, where he falls for a beautiful Hungarian freedom fighter (Olga Kurylenko) who only has eyes for a charismatic anarchist (Rodrigo Santoro).
Failing to evoke the passions of For Whom the Bell Tolls (this revolutionary triangle is more like the one in Sleeper, drained of jokes), Joffé also struggles to infuse Escrivá’s determination to minister to his flock, or the threat of increasing violence against the clergy, with much urgency. Even a promising scene of the priest hearing confessions in plainclothes while sitting in a public square dwindles into a humble woman’s offer to give him refuge; cue a gallant refusal “because I am also a man,” and a hurried peck on the cheek.
Opus Dei doesn’t suffer Da Vinci Code vilification here, but it’s never clear how the group grew or what it was. There Be Dragons shifts gears in nearly every scene in search of a vivid image, from a 2001-style deathbed vision to a mountain-escape climax a la Grand Illusion, but the vintage uniforms, antique warplanes, and hymn-like scoring can’t rescue Joffé’s folly from the muddle of its unjustified self-importance.