Rosamund Pike gives a force-of-nature performance in A Private War

Pike’s tenacity, swagger and depth are astonishing.

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Two weeks after a US court found the government of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad liable for the death of the Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin, and seven years since she was killed in the city of Homs alongside the French photographer Remi Ochlik, comes a fictionalised but creditable survey of the last decade or so of her life. A Private War is bookended by a shot in which the camera pulls out of a bombed building in Homs to survey a landscape where identical smoking wreckages extend as far as the eye can see. The film’s title implies that the conflicts for Colvin – played by Rosamund Pike in a force-of-nature performance – were not merely external.

She tells a colleague that she hates being in war zones yet feels compelled to see them for herself, and some of the movie’s choicest moments tap into that friction. Shortly after losing the sight in her left eye during the civil war in Sri Lanka, Colvin attends the British Press Awards, where she is to be named Foreign Reporter of the Year. The eyepatch-wearing journalist is positioned slap-bang next to a giant promotional photograph of her former intact self, creating a dissonance between the two.

When the eyepatch is first proposed, Colvin protests that she has no intention of dressing as a pirate. The irony is that she couldn’t seem more like one if she were wearing a parrot on her shoulder and singing “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” – or, in her case, vodka. (It’s the only tipple that silences the noise in her head.) Whether she’s staggering around drunkenly at a party, filing copy from a hospital bed or crossing the Iraqi border by passing off her gym membership as medical credentials, she is as tough as they come. The film hints at the vulnerability poking through that exterior.

Arash Amel’s screenplay favours bald explanation wherever possible. A Tamil leader is keen to sing Colvin’s praises (“You have a good reputation for speaking honestly”) but he will need to get in line behind her editor, Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander), who is on hand with a verbal pick-me-up for any occasion (“You have the God-given talent to make people stop and care”). Amel’s work here is an advance on his script for Grace of Monaco, though the same might be said of the average shopping list. Still, his control of tone doesn’t always inspire confidence. The intentional humour works well enough. Taking shelter in Homs with her photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) as the shells fall around them, Colvin says: “This is the last time I book a holiday on the internet.” When she is informed following her Sri Lankan ordeal, however, that “Sting and Trudie wish you well”, it’s a line that can’t exist in any other realm but the satirical. If only the film-makers showed some sign of knowing that.

The director Matthew Heineman has a background in documentary, and Pike serves as a one-woman answer to the question of why he didn’t make a factual piece: her tenacity, swagger and depth are astonishing, as is her mastery of Colvin’s chewy American accent. The film also has a smart editing trick to recommend it: we jump from an exterior shot of Colvin opening the door of her west London home after an argument with her husband to an interior one of her entering the property. Except it’s not her house she is walking into, but a building under mortar fire in Iraq. The cut contains all we need to know about her work/life balance.

Too often what we see on screen is weakened by what we hear, and I’m not just referring to the pompous Annie Lennox song (“Requiem for a Private War”) over the end credits. The intrusive voice-over never relents, and though the technique might be helpful in documentary, in this case it makes the action remote and lowers the film’s temperature. Heineman also relies too heavily on montage, on the filleting of atrocity into showreels of suffering, for there to be much sustained visceral impact. Only in the final scenes in Syria does the picture achieve an intensity of tone. Until then, the biggest shock is the sight of Colvin smoking in a London restaurant. What would Sting and Trudie say about that? 

A Private War (15)
dir: Matthew Heineman

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 15 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam