Eroticism and war in Angelina Jolie's directorial debut

In the Land of Blood and Honey is a partial success, says Grace Jennings-Edquist.

Given Hollywood's relative historic disregard for the Bosnian war, Angelina Jolie's directorial debut was always going to pique the interests of ethnic groups in the Balkan region and critics alike.

In the Land of Blood and Honey is a drama set against the bloody backdrop of 1990s ex-Yugoslavia. The Golden Globe-nominated project charts the ambiguous relationship between Ajla (Zana Marjanović), a Bosniak painter, and Danijel (Goran Kostić), a Serb soldier. It follows them from their pre-war date in a nightclub to the horrific rape camps of Bosnia-Herzegovina and, ultimately, to the confined military quarters where Danijel variously protects and imprisons his lover/enemy.

Jolie, who wrote, directed and co-produced the feature, set herself a momentous challenge. The region still has a long way to go in resolving the ugly tensions which sparked the Bosnian war following the collapse of Tito-led Yugoslavia; today, ethnic groups live side by side in what the film describes as "an uneasy peace".

It is unsurprising, then, that even before its December 23 US release, the project attracted both the ire of Bosnian Muslims - when local media erroneously reported an on-screen love narrative between a Bosniak rape victim and her Serbian attacker - and criticism from Serbian groups incensed by the film's alleged one-sided account of the conflict.

Thankfully, Jolie has risen to the challenge with sensitivity. The film is shot in Serbo-Croatian with English subtitles, its representation of the bullet-ridden Sarajevo cityscape shows attention to detail -- despite filming taking place largely in Hungary -- and the actors are local to the region. Jolie's interest in respectful accuracy precludes her film from obtaining the "vanity project" status feared by some.

Indeed, she obviously intends the project as a Hotel Rwanda-esque exercise in global awareness-raising; as she recalled in one interview: "I wanted people to sit for two hours and think, please stop this conflict. Because that's us screaming in our hearts to the international community - please stop this."

Although this goal unsubtly finds expression in several gratuitous monologues and broadcast announcements throughout, it remains laudable, given the relative lack of widespread comprehension of the conflict's complexities. Indeed, the feature proves commendable in its focus on the mass abuse of women that first saw rape recognised as a war crime by the international justice system.

Unfortunately, Jolie's decision to engage the protagonists in an admittedly indistinct "romance" is unrealistic at best and flatly offensive at worst. Danijel intimidates Ajla with weapons and sporadically controls her with violence, even initiating an apparent attempt to rape her; the narrative's attempt to explain away his outbursts as inevitable consequences of family pressure leaves too many questions unanswered.

While the feature thankfully stops short of directly eroticising the relationship's abusive undertones, the inclusion of soft-focus sex scenes and an manipulatively sentimental soundtrack- particularly in combination with Danijel's lament, "if only [Ajla] had been born a Serb" -- occasionally hint at an unsettling attempt at an amorous Montague-and-Capulet-style narrative.

The film's grisly ending provides a degree of much-needed clarity on the protagonists' motivations in pursuing the relationship. Danijel's repentant surrender in the final frame, however, may be read as a partial directorial exoneration of the character -- a conclusion that will disappoint some.

The UK release date for In The Land of Blood and Honey is yet to be confirmed.

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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