Scott Hicks' follow-up to the phenomenon of Shine needed to be prestigious. His adaptation of David Guterson's acclaimed novel works overtime to fit the bill - so laboriously, in fact, that this essentially gripping, grown up drama of war and remembrance comes off too ponderously for its own good.
The company fastidiously recreate the period and atmosphere of a Pacific Northwest where seamen and farmers of Scandinavian and Japanese descent vie to wrest a living. But this is basically one man's journey to redemption, as the quietly simmering grudge that is Ishmael (Ethan Hawke, by turns withdrawn and passionate) takes his time getting over himself.
The reporter as observer is a time-honoured device, but in his secretive pursuit of truth, Ishmael drifts through this film like an angry sleepwalker, not just literally and spiritually wounded, but also burdened with a heavy load of flashback sequences ambitiously used to reveal a history of racism, greed and shame on the island. His dreams and recollections take in: the splendid father (Sam Shepard) who was a better man than he, the tragedies of the Japanese-American neighbours interned in wartime, combat hell in the Pacific, and the hopeful, rebellious children he and childhood sweetheart Hatsue (Kudoh) were when they trysted in the woods. Whew! Yet, as Hatsue's husband, Kazuo, goes on trial for murder, director Hicks illustrates how the past permeates the present as Ishmael is again forced to deal with his demons.
Working with a class team (Von Sydow for the defence, Cromwell presiding as the judge and plenty of expertise in cast and crew), Hicks has gone for an impressionistic, artful style that is in keeping with the novel and very attractive. But, given the complexities of the story, it might have been better to go for a more direct telling. And the prejudice explored in the tale seems to live on in the credits - why are the Japanese-American actors billed so far down when Hatsue and Kazuo are two of the main roles?