I will admit to having absolutely no knowledge of 'Incendiary' going into this review. Despite the presence of stars Michelle Williams and Ewan McGregor, the movie has been entirely off the radar for most of us American viewers. Still, that could have been a good thing -- often the biggest surprises are the flicks we have no preconceptions of. Alas, there is a reason that 'Incendiary' seems to have fallen through the cinematic cracks -- it's just not very good.
But first, a little history. 'Incendiary' may be the cursed movie of the decade. Based on the novel of the same name by Chris Cleave, it was written partly in response to the tragedy of the World Trade Center bombings of September 11, 2001. When the novel finally did hit stores, it had the misfortune to arrive on July 7, 2005 -- the same day a bombing hit London, in a fashion not too far removed from the novel. On top of all this, the eventual film adaptation stars Michelle Williams, whose late ex-fiancé Heath Ledger died within days of the film's Sundance debut. If you did want to see 'Incendiary,' all of these negative associations may have changed your mind.
The plot. Williams stars as the unhappily married Young Mother (that's all the due she gets in the credits), who struggles with feelings of emptiness, despite a faithful husband and adorable four-year-old son. So one day, while her husband, an emergency bomb squad specialist, is away, she strikes up an affair with journalist Jaspar Black (Ewan McGregor). Then tragedy strikes -- her husband and son are killed in a bombing, pushing her to search for the answers behind the event. Working with Jaspar, she hopes to unravel the truth, as well as ease the punishing guilt that continues to gnaw at her over the affair, and her perceived abandonment of her child. Oddly, however, she also begins to fall for a local detective, Terrance (Matthew Macfadyen), which only further complicates the plot, and her emotional state.
I didn't warm to 'Incendiary' for two reasons. First, despite admiring Williams in the past, I found her both miscast and ill-used here. She has a dreamy, magnetic quality as an actress that I frequently find genuine and grounded (just see 'Brokeback Mountain' or the recently-released, underrated 'Wendy & Lucy'). Unfortunately, she just can't crack a script that paints her character in cloudy, even impenetrable terms. Like the pretentious use of "Young Mother" to describe her (the film uses this device with many characters), we are kept at arm's length from understanding her, as if the film would rather us see her as symbolic than three-dimensional. Fair enough, but that makes it impossible for Williams to anchor the film, and our empathy. It's a thankless task.
And second, 'Incendiary' telegraphs its intentions far too easily. We know the Young Mother must be made likable in some sense, so her husband is portrayed two-dimensionally, if only to get her off the hook when he gets blown up. The romantic aspects with McGregor are also pretty dreadful -- he and Williams have no chemistry, and McGregor looks like he's phoning it in. Worst of all, the script is so heavy-handed it borders on camp. I hated the mawkish narration that Williams was given, as well as the ham-fisted social statements the film tries to make about the bombing in the movie, the big plot reveals, and the weak way the romance supposedly parallels the political subtext. I won't ruin the film's surprises, but I really hate this kind of Big Message moviemaking.
It's a shame when a little-known, and admittedly ambitious, movie like 'Incendiary' comes across my desk. I love to discover new surprises like this, but here's a case where a movie garnered little acclaim for good reason. 'Incendiary' is certainly technically proficient, in that it looks good, is competently directed (by Sharon Maguire) and boasts a talented cast. But in the conversion from novel to screen, much is lost, and that's subtlety. 'Incendiary' is hard to recommend, except for those particularly interested in political filmmaking, or who just have a couple of hours to kill.
I don't know if is an "image" problem or what, but Image Entertainment has produced some quite fine Blu-ray transfers in the past, but doesn't seem to get enough credit for it among the online home theater crowd. 'Incendiary' is the latest example from the indie (distributing for ThinkFilm), as this is a very good-looking presentation.
I had issues with 'Incendiary' as a film, but without a doubt, it is well photographed and produced. The print is spotless, with excellent deep blacks and only some boosted contrast to flatten things out. Detail is strong, with fine textures clearly visible on close-ups as well as long wide shots. Colors are rich and natural, with lovely saturation but no bleeding or noise issues. Shadow delineation could perhaps be improved slightly as I noticed some black crush, but that's a minor quibble. Sharpness is nice, with no apparent edge enhancement, nor any encoding issues. 'Incendiary' looks good.
A DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit) is provided for 'Incendiary.' It's a solid mix -- not exceptional, but certainly more than adequate.
'Incendiary' doesn't really differentiate itself sonically the way it does visually. The largely dialogue-driven film, with its mix of mushy romance and relatively flat action, doesn't provide much ammo for great surrounds, except in small bursts. Technical specs are polished enough, with a spacious sound, clean dynamics across the spectrum and supportive low bass. Dialogue is most important here, and it's generally well balanced though sometimes obscured by loud action. Quiet and deep tones can be obscured. Not a bad mix at all, just nothing much to distinguish it, really.
Not too much here -- given 'Incendiary's next-to-non-existent US box office showing, that's no surprise.
'Incendiary' is a misfire. I like Michelle Williams, but she's miscast here, and the film's muddy mix of politics and romance just falls flat. This Blu-ray isn't bad, with very good video, fine audio, but no supplements. 'Incendiary' is just so weak as a film, it's hard to recommend even as a rental.