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Here Be Dragons (Film Review)

2 min read

It's probably too soon to make a revenge-thriller out of the Bosnian Genocide. We see great films made of real-life tragedy all the time. They can be harrowing or heart-lifting, tales of humanity's darkest moments, or of the human spirit emerging from the ashes. But they all approach the subject with a weight of responsibility, an obligation to the victims and their families to get their story right. Here Be Dragons certainly attempts to treat its subject matter with the seriousness it deserves. Yet by the end of 's directorial debut, one can't escape the feeling that this project might have been too much, and too soon.

The film starts by kicking us back to 1993, as Nathan Sapsford's fresh-faced Private David is involved in a harrowing prisoner-exchange with a distractingly cartoonish Ivan Novak (Vladimir Gvojic). Following a spot of personal tragedy and a 25-year time jump, David finds himself a job as a war crimes investigator at The Hague—but when a ghost from his past asks him to bring Novak to justice, he sets out for modern-day with vengeance on his mind.

In its defence, Here Be Dragons captures enough of the tone and structure that suggest it was conceived more as an old-fashioned political thriller than a typical revenge movie. Budgetary necessity means it certainly lacks the action scenes and set pieces of the latter. Unfortunately, the script doesn't do a great job of getting that across. The plot and set-up feel like they've been lifted from a Taken-style action movie, and stilted, f-bomb–laden dialogue is entirely at odds with the realism, or at least seriousness, that the subject matter demands.

The performances, meanwhile, are dropped out of a different movie. The Serbian villains are almost offensively over-the-top, pitched closer to Hollywood B-Movie antagonists than the terrifyingly real people the script needs them to be. Sapsford, as the put-upon protagonist, has the opposite problem. As David trudges round Belgrade in search of his nemesis, his emotional state never progresses beyond grumpy standoffishness. Though the character is obviously meant to be the withdrawn, strong and silent type, we never get much of a hint at the inner turmoil that makes such characters compelling. None of this is helped when the only female characters are not so much thinly drawn as sketched with the blunt end of a crayon.

Critiquing a film of this scale is always difficult. On a budget as slim as this one, with the filmmakers likely working in a non-professional capacity, there's a lot of mistakes that can and should be forgiven in a first feature. But basing the movie in a very real tragedy like this one ups the stakes. I'm not saying for a moment that Here Be Dragons was made with anything but noble intentions. But when dealing with a subject matter of this severity, the price of failure is so much higher.

Here Be Dragons premiered at Cinequest 2022