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— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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Beyond Borders is an attempt at a sweeping epic romance set in some of the modern-day world’s most unromantic places. With powerful scenes of famine-ridden Ethiopia, militant Cambodia, and war-torn Chechnya, it’s a movie with a sincere social conscience. Unfortunately, that conscience is compromised by a strong Hollywood influence that spoils what could have been a masterpiece.

Jordan of Ethiopia

Sarah Jordan is moved to help
Sarah Jordan is moved to help

Sarah Jordan (Angelina Jolie, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) is a young American happily married to Henry Bauford (Linus Roache, Hart’s War), the son of a well-connected English socialite. Their perfect little Camelot, however, falls under attack at a fundraising ball for Aid Relief International, a group designed to help relief workers and refugees.

Nick Callahan (Clive Owen, Croupier), a rogue doctor struggling to save people’s lives in Ethiopia, breaks into the London bash with a starving Ethiopian child at this side. His complaint is precious little of the money raised by the organization actually reaches the people for which it was intended. Instead, Nick claims, the funds help feed the high life of those running the organization.

The whole scene is incredibly awkward and disjointed, particularly when Nick directs his starving companion to mimic a chimpanzee with a banana thrown from the crowd. His intent is to humiliate the partygoers by humiliating his charge. Much like the rest of the movie, he’s not entirely successful.

He does make an impact on Sarah. Overwhelmed by a sense of duty, she quickly gives up her comfortable London digs and leaves her new husband for a short stint in Ethiopia, to provide money and her hands for relief work.

Allah Akbar

Beyond Borders is a movie with a double agenda: Provide a romantic storyline as a palatable basis to attract audiences, then turn the tables with a look at the daily horrors faced by a large portion of the world’s population.

As Nick comments, most people have no idea what courage is. In this case, courage is on display with a wounded mother going under the knife without the benefit of anesthesia or other modern medical accouterments. Death, she tells her translator, would hurt more.

Color My World

There is an underlying color scheme to the storytelling that creates a very compelling canvas. Sarah first sees the struggles in Ethiopia, where the tan desert provides a barren landscape and a sense of futility as the relief workers combat an environment inhospitable to its natives.

After a return to “civilized” London, Sarah, now working for the United Nations, visits the lush green land of Cambodia to ensure the safe transport of relief supplies, particularly prosthetic limbs for the victims of the terrain’s numerous unmapped landmines.

After another return to London, Sarah takes it upon herself to assist Nick, taken captive in the freezing, bleak and white terrain of snowy Chechnya. As the landscape changes, so does the intensity of the conflict and the increasing proliferation of weapons compounds the difficulty of providing relief.

Compassion Fatigue

Beyond Borders takes place over the course of 12 years (1984-1995) and it strives to be a time capsule of some of the world’s great crises and sweeping changes. Even Sarah’s sister, Charlotte (Teri Polo, Meet the Parents), an aspiring journalist at the film’s start, is eventually seen at the top of her game, anchoring a news broadcast and reporting on the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It’s clear why Jolie would choose to add Beyond Borders to her rèsumè and it has nothing to do with the film’s romantic elements. Actively participating in environmental conservation, personally working on behalf of the U.N., and the adoptive mother of a Cambodian child, the film’s main theme is close to her heart.

Jolie and the rest of the cast turn in solid performances, most especially Owen, for whom this could have been a star-making vehicle.

As expected, director Martin Campbell (The Mask of Zorro, Goldeneye) excels during the film’s harrowing scenes of war and action, but he falls flat during the romantic moments. It’s as if he was merely tolerating those scenes simply to drive the overarching storyline.

St. Elsewhere

Unfortunately, it’s the romantic element, and its sloppy execution, that undermines the film’s primary mission. Beyond Borders would have done a greater service to the refugees and relief workers it tries to lionize without the romantic entanglements that show Henry cheating on Sarah and Sarah falling for Nick, who has grown emotionally detached after experiencing so much inhumanity.

The film should have served as an eye-opener to an American movie-going public, the majority no doubt oblivious to the plight of millions of human beings around the world. Nonetheless, in Sarah’s growing sense of responsibility there is a smattering of the inspiration the film hoped to supply in droves. Also, the ending is a gritty surprise in light of the film’s philosophical start, which finds Sarah asking rhetorically if we as individuals truly know where we belong and why so few of us do something about getting there.

More quiet moments like that would have elevated the film from the typical “social romance” to a film of greater significance.