The story of Joan of Arc has been told many times on film, about the peasant girl of France who had claimed Divine visions, leading the French army at its weakest to claim some victories over the English in the tumultuous 15th Century period between the two countries, up until her betrayal and capture, culminating in her burning at the stake after being accused of heresy. Luc Besson's The Messenger covers this entire period in his Joan of Arc biography, coming straight off the success of The Fifth Element and casting leading lady Milla Juvovich from that sci-fi film in the titular role here.
There are many descriptions used to describe Joan of Arc, and some include witch which her enemies frequently use, lunatic for her less than rational ways especially on the battlefield, saviour for freeing the French people under English rule, warrior for those who have fought beside her, and leader in showing the light of way through her prophesied visions, to which even the Dauphin and future King of France Charles VII (John Malkovich) may have even felt threatened, with no less than the Yolnde of Aragon (Faye Dunaway) stoking the flames of suspicion, especially when Joan chalks up victory after victory and plenty of heart and mindshare from the people.
The Messenger, written by Andrew Birkin and Luc Besson, paints first and foremost the character of Joan as a normal little girl who got corrupted by the ugly nature of war when forced to witness the sacrifice of her sister Catherine, and here their story continues to tussle on two spectrums, whether Joan is the mentioned chosen one, or whether she is actually hell bent on revenge against the English, which explains her dogged pursuit of writing to the Dauphin and pleading to be given an army with which to wage war against the enemies of France. The film spends considerable time in establishing and debating this element, right down to an intrusive virginity check, before launching her into battle that any war movie fan will probably find interest in.
I can imagine the kind of flak that Besson probably got with his film actually exploring all angles whether Joan of Arc could have been delusional rather than prophetic. After all she did get canonized as a Saint by The Vatican, albeit some 500 years later, so surely that's a strong statement put forth to make legitimate her visions which she's claimed has guided her in her actions in the interest of France. Then again the many men of faith portrayed here are cast in relatively bad light, open to manipulation by those in power to see that their motives are met, and frankly made bad judgement calls. But hey, this probably wasn't the first time anyway, especially with the distancing and absolving of guilt, and of passing the buck.
The most interesting scenes here, for a viewer today, aren't really the big battle sequences, which for its time was subtly shot in a way that almost puts you side by side with the armies who had followed Joan into battle, smack right inside the chaos rather than to be witnessing it from afar. The scenes which grab your attention are those in the third act during the trials of Joan, which are purportedly based on actual transcripts, which of course raises the authenticity of this film in portraying the life of a legend. Dustin Hoffman provides a limited supporting role here as Joan's Conscience, that challenges just about everything she puts forth in support of her arguments, and does so with proof using what's been seen, and therefore putting doubt and questions into our mind, and including that of Joan's herself too. The counter-arguments of selective memory and seeing what you want to see, cannot be more pronounced here.
While Milla Juvovich has recently made more of a name for herself with tentpoles such as the Resident Evil franchise, The Messenger provided her with opportunities in exercising her lesser seen dramatic side, where we can feel her internal struggles when faced with doubt, or even the more crazed side dogged with the belief that she's doing things as ordained by heaven. Her charisma worked wonders here as you will probably agree how that comes into play as well when lifting morale of weary soldiers, putting forth convincing arguments to persuade the laying down of arms by opponents, and of course the rebellious nature of speaking up against her oppressors in court.
In what I think is one of her best roles thus far, Milla Juvovich shines in this Luc Besson film that's tailor made for her with a fine balance between action and drama. This film is that fairly complete account of the life of Joan of Arc, with some definite moments thrown in that's open to plenty of discussions especially on her state of mind, or whether messengers like that could have happened, or only psychologically stemming from the mind.
The Region 1 DVD by Columbia Tri-Star Home Entertainment of the International Version of the film comes presented in a relatively pristine anamorphic widescreen transfer, with audio available in either the English 2-Channel Dolby Surround or 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitles and closed captioning are available in English only, with scene selection over 28 chapters.
Special Features is quite scant on this one disc edition. Presented in letterbox format, The Messenger: "The Search for the real Joan of Arc" HBO First Look" (23:53) is as close to a making of documentary as it can get, with plenty of behind the scenes clips. Hosted by Milla Jovovich herself, there's enough interviews with costumers, armourers and even Eric Serra the music composer to share nuggets of information through the production process, and summarizes the narrative of the film from beginning to end. Luc Besson the co-writer and director though, is suspiciously missing.
Other than that, there's an option to select the Isolated Music Score On/Off, which allows you to watch the film in its entirety with only Eric Serra's composed music, but you'd have to bear with periods of silence in the film when it doesn't come on. I will suggest if you want to listen to the movie music, to go get the soundtrack instead. The Talent Files section is just a text based summary in point form, and a filmography of Luc Besson, Milla Juvovich, John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway and Dustin Hoffman, which you can scroll through from start to end but offer little value from what you can already find out from IMDb.com. And rounding the features up are a selection of Theatrical Trailers of The Messenger (2:32) and its Teaser trailer (1:25), Run Lola Run (1:30), Orlando (0:46) and the other Luc Besson film The Professional (2:31).