In A KNIGHTS TALE, an odd film of which I am inordinately fond, Brian Helgelend told a serious story with comedy. In his latest effort, THE ORDER, he tells a serious story with tedium. The results are considerably less appealing. Not that I didnt know something was up when this turkey was released without a press screening. But I figured, hey, the uber-bomb of the summer, GIGLI. was press screened, how bad could this be? And thats when I learned that despite what Keats said, the truth is not always pretty.
Helgeland, who wrote, produced, and directed, quotes Keats in this tale of the occult. He has his characters, priests in several states of grace and defrockment, spout a few pithy quotes but he has them spew even more ponderous pronouncements. But that would be in keeping with the sepulchral look and tone of the film. Sepulchral as in dead, not spooky, dull, not creepy, and boring, as in an eternity with nothing to entertain.
Heath Ledger, Mark Addy and Shannyn Sossamon, who co-starred in A KNIGHTS TALE, are together again here and no one is happy about it. Rumor has it that another cast member, Paul Bettany, was originally scheduled to take part as well, but when he saw the script, he ran. He was right to do so. And we should all take heed. His part went to Benno Furmann, who was so good in Tom Tykwers THE PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR and who deserves a better break into English-language films.
But I digress.
Ledger is Alex, an old-school priest, who says the Mass in Latin and is a member of the Carolingens, the order of the title who are, according to the expository dialogue, even more intellectually curious than the Jesuits. The Church, not knowing what else to do with him, relegated him to a small parish in New York, where he met and formed an unpriestly attachment to Mara, a mental patient played by Sossamon, who still cant act and, if possible, has actually gotten worse. Meanwhile, his mentor back in Rome, the standard issue aged priest with a dark secret, has committed suicide and before you can say Pie Jesu, Alex, Mara, and Addy, as another protégé of the deceased, have converged on Rome to solve the mystery and stir up the dark powers that be. That would be a sin eater (Furmann), the guy who takes away your sins, literally, by munching on ritual bread, who has grown weary of his 500-year-old life and, well, that would be telling.
Helgeland and company fail to infuse any spark of life, never mind passion, into the proceedings. When Mara is supposed to be running in terror from William, Sossamons interpretation recalls nothing so much as the head cheerleader brushing off the class nerd. As for the others, Furmann has presence and a diabolically intense stare, though when directed at Sossamon, there is just a hint of incredulity. Addy, an actor of considerable talent when it comes to comedy, who seems to have been given some lines that were supposed to be funny, but even he fails to ferret out the humor in things like a priest getting drunk and waking up the next day with a crucifix tattoo on his ankle. And Ledger looks good and tries hard, but is still essentially the soul of blandness. And it couldnt be any other way, with everything kept in half-light and low voices, the rambling of the script undercuts the best efforts by all involved. Even the special effects, which arent all that special, fail to deliver a jolt. The sins of the departed look way too much like jellyfish to inspire fear. As for the spooky kids who show up for no readily apparent reason, they will only terrify those who fear wrinkled clothes and uncombed hair.
This is a story that takes a long time before getting started and the putters out almost immediately. It is as though Helgeland is afraid to let the audience fill in any details and so bashes us over the head with scene after scene whose crumb of information doesnt justify its existence. Instead of cutting to a scene that actually advances the action, we have everything grind to a halt as we visit a bookshop and discover that the old priest liked to buy antique books of arcana. This after weve seen the old priests apartment, stuffed to the rafters with antique books of arcane.
Its not like Helegeland didnt have a good premise. Nefarious dealings in the Catholic Church, ancient curses, an Anti-Christ holding court underneath a Roman disco, a final showdown in St Peters Basilica. Never mind the whole metaphysical issue of salvation. THE ORDER loses its way early, never finds it way back, and leaves us in the audience to find our own way out.