|Molokai - The Story of Father Damien|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 26 September 2000|
‘Molokai: The Story of “Father Damien” ’ is a fact-based drama that is intriguing, partly because of the manner in which it is handled by director Paul Cox and screenwriter John Briley, and partly because of the extraordinary beauty of its Hawaiian locations.
In the late 19th century, well before Hawaii was adopted as part of the United States, England oversaw a leper colony on the island of Molokai. The one thing to be said for the place was that the views were incredible. Life and death, however, were sheer hell for the inhabitants, all suffering from leprosy and, in effect, condemned to permanent imprisonment with few supplies, less medicine and no law. The Catholic Church decided someone should minister to these unfortunates. Father Damien (David Wenham) volunteered. A young priest with strong convictions, Father Damien quite literally embraced (albeit chastely) the lepers to whom he ministered. He got a lot of grief from the men running brothels on the island with and for lepers, but Father Damien’s really dispiriting conflicts were with politicians and his ecclesiastical superiors, who found the priest’s unusual ministry inconvenient, embarrassing and potentially expensive.
‘Molokai’ takes an admiring view of its protagonist. Wenham is thoroughly likable and humanizes Damien, not an easy task with a character whose behavior (despite a few understandable doubts and fits of temper) is downright saintly. In some ways, ‘Molokai’ is reminiscent of an “uplifting” telefilm, but director Cox has a gift for maintaining a low-key, quirky tone so that we never feel pounded over the head. Briley’s script, based on Hilde Eynikel’s biography of the priest, is straightforward and not preachy. However, his restraint at times tends to make potentially dramatic conflicts a bit drier than they should be. When Damien is consistently stymied by governmental and Church policy, for instance, it’s hard not to wonder what a more outraged and outrageous writer like Jimmy McGovern could have done with the set-up.
‘Molokai’ reportedly is available in a full-frame version, but it’s hard to imagine who in his or her right mind would want such a thing. Cox makes the absolute most of the stunning settings, actually filmed on Molokai. The DVD transfer is breathtaking in its color preservation, with wonderfully clear blues and grays in a Chapter 3 shot of Damien watching the sea, followed by a sunset that is lit like a Maxfield Parrish painting. Chapter 13 gives us a ravishing, distinct palette of blues in the sky and sea.
There is no sound format listed for ‘Molokai’ on the packaging. It seems (on the reviewed disk, at least) to be two-channel, reproduced with precision. Dialogue is continually crisp and clean, although sometimes there is a little too much enthusiasm for verisimilitude – when characters walk away from camera during a conversation, their voices are allowed to recede with their images, even though what they’re saying is important to the story. Ambient sound is preserved so faithfully that in Chapter 2, the splashing of waves is almost overwhelming. There are lively directional noises throughout – during a chase through thick brush in Chapter 1, we get a sense of side to side movement. Chapter 9 also contains some attention-getting gunshots. There is a momentary sound drop-out between Chapters 8 and 9.
The DVD comes with a making-of short, which is largely concerned with background on Father Damien. One interesting aspect here is discovering how much the cast members, including Peter O’Toole (who plays a dying agnostic) and Leo McKern (who plays Damien’s kind-hearted bishop), already knew of the real man from their school days.
‘Molokai’ is a religious biodrama that is nicely understated. If you have friends and relations who bemoan the violence and lack of weight in today’s popular fare – and who can cope with pretty realistic depictions of both the effects of leprosy and general human misery – this may be a good movie to show them. It’s well-acted, quiet but intelligent, and manages to handle its spiritual themes with conviction without either haranguing the audience or seeming self-congratulatory.