Beyond Borders
dir. Martin Campbell
Opens Fri Oct 24 at various theaters.

Beyond Borders opens and closes in London, with jaunts to such cheery locales as Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Chechnya along the way. It stars the great Clive Owen and the rapidly deteriorating Angelina Jolie. It aims to be an important, life-affirming romance. It is, in a word, a disaster.

This should come as no real surprise, for the film's premise--love among relief workers--shoots up a number of warning flares. A bloom of romance among starvation and genocide? The heart surely melts--after all, nothing spells sexy like the Khmer Rouge.

The film opens in 1995, offering as its first image the sight of Jolie's mighty lips hunched over a piano. She is the naive Sarah Jordan, residing in a stately London manor, and as we meet her she is tickling the ivories, a voiceover gasping about love and loss. As an entrance to the picture, such a scene screams important work afoot, but there is a complete falseness to it; only a minute in, the film's director, Martin Campbell, has played his entire hand, informing us that Beyond Borders is to be a sweeping romantic effort, exploring the world's travesties with an exceedingly polished lens. It is to be Amnesty International's Titanic.

From this gateway, the film skips back to 1984, to a benefit where Sarah is in attendance with her bland husband-to-be, Henry (Linus Roache). The cause: hunger in Africa, a problem Sarah cares very little about. How do we know this? Because much of her time at the gala is spent showing off her large engagement rock to her sister Charlotte (Teri Polo). There is a social conscience headed for Sarah, however, in the form of Dr. Nick Callahan (Clive Owen), who rudely storms into the gala with a starved African boy in tow and promptly declares the event's attendees to be insincere and shallow. The sight of the emaciated (and rather perplexed) boy sends Sarah's heart into a tailspin, and launches the romance of Beyond Borders into action. Within days, Sarah has made up her mind to do good in the world, and with the help of her fiancé she organizes truckloads of food and medicine to be taken to Ethiopia. And it is in Ethiopia that the hunky Dr. Nick awaits.

Nick's return to Africa was not without troubles, though, for not only were both he and his boy-prop nabbed by authorities after his stunt, but the boy--named "Jo-Jo"--fled their captors and froze to death on the streets of London. Oops. Why did the filmmakers choose to add insult to injury with this little plot twist? One assumes "conflict in character" is to blame, but the snuffing of Jo-Jo is an exceptionally bitter pill for the audience to choke down, especially given the cursory acknowledgement of the blunder throughout the rest of the picture. Jo-Jo here, Jo-Jo gone, Jo-Jo forgotten--when are Nick and Sarah going to get it on? This, unfortunately, is how the scheme plays out--despite the two or three tears Nick sheds later on in the picture--and the filmmakers' handling of the scenario points to the major fault in Beyond Borders: The worldly troubles and hotspots used in the film are, like Jo-Jo, little more than props. Starvation and genocide are the film's great ship, and Dr. Nick and Sarah passengers, who, despite the conflicts and sinkings around them, manage to fall in love.

Perhaps most audience members will remain untroubled by its pimping of travesty in the name of romance, but like last year's Bruce Willis debacle Tears of the Sun, which used as its inspiration the 1994 massacre of over 800,000 Tutsi citizens in Rwanda, Beyond Borders is little more than abuse of tragedy in the name of commerce--a fraudulent work of art claiming to explore tough issues and problems, but really just using horrendous, real-life events as a plotting gimmick. Everyone has seen two people fall in love, but what if they fell in love while feeding the starving, or plucking a grenade from the hands of an infant? How can we make a romance that is fresh and new and exciting and... you know, important?

Even as a romance, though, Beyond Borders is a plodding, unconvincing affair. You never believe, over the course of the story's 11 years, that Nick and Sarah would fall for one another; nonetheless, at just over two hours, the love story feels rushed, especially as the film tumbles toward its conclusion. Nick and Sarah are together just three times in a decade--in Ethiopia to battle famine, Cambodia to help those afflicted by the Khmer Rouge's tyrannical reign, and Chechnya to help those afflicted by war--but, the filmmakers wish us to believe, they are absolutely made for each other--so much so that Sarah would abandon her family and rush to Chechnya to rescue Nick when he disappears. "There hasn't been a day I haven't thought about you," they tell one another during their second visit, and as they say it you feel as if they themselves don't buy it. This, in the end, makes Beyond Borders a failure on two fronts: humanitarian and romantic.

brad@thestranger.com