Release date: 13th March 2014
Director: George Clooney
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville
Classification: M (Violence)
Review by Peter Gray
A far cry from the serious World War II films that we’re used to seeing, ‘The Monuments Men’ is more a deliberate old-fashioned caper that focuses less on the war itself and more on keeping its audience entertained. Concentrating on a specific aspect of the Second World War, the film follows an allied unit of museum directors, curators, and art historians who were sent behind enemy lines to recover priceless works of art that were stolen by Hitler and destined for his own use in Germany. It’s a story that wouldn’t be too well known to many, which perhaps plays in the film’s favour, though it has been told before in the form of ‘The Train’, a 1965 action film with Burt Lancaster.
‘The Monuments Men’ suffers in direct comparison to that film, but on its own merits it’s still a unique, and often entertaining, film that could easily be compared to ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, not surprising given George Clooney has his stamp all over this outing serving as headliner, writer and director. Initially the film seemed like it would be poised for award greatness given its theme and cast, but Clooney’s choice to move it out of Award season is more clear once the film is viewed as this was never an intentional ‘Oscar grab’ movie; it just wants to have fun and, for that, critics seem to be giving it a hard time.
Personally I quite enjoyed ‘The Monuments Men’ and if you keep your expectations in check, you should have a great time. It’s not complex, nor is it trying to be, and there’s no denying the cast are giving it their all. Clooney, complete with an Errol Flynn-style moustache, looks as sharp as always, playing the role clearly to his strengths. Matt Damon – one of Clooney’s go-to guys – perhaps has the bigger role playing a historian sent into occupied France, based solely on the fact that he’s “fluent in French”. This running gag on his broken Anglo-Quebec way of speaking (he “learnt in Montreal”) is one of the film’s most enjoyable moments and allows a nice break in tone for Damon’s scenes, which are mainly devoted to his relationship with a Frenchwoman (Cate Blanchett), who was coerced into cataloguing the Nazi inventory of art stolen from France’s Jewish population. Blanchett, as always, is utterly committed to the role, and she completely disappears into a woman devoted to righting a wrong.
Much of the film’s humour comes courtesy of Bob Balaban and Bill Murray, two of the more inexperienced members in terms of war etiquette, who are expectedly teamed up together and provide a decent amount of comic relief without resorting to anything low brow or predictable. Murray does get one of the film’s most affecting moments though as he breaks down into tears upon hearing a phonograph of a Christmas tune recorded by his grandchildren. The other unlikely pairing is John Goodman and Jean Dujardin, the duo surprisingly effective with Dujardin in particular impressing with his typical ‘Hollywood Frenchman’ routine – smoking, wearing a beret and constantly smiling – which suits the tone of the film perfectly. Hugh Bonneville (TV’s ‘Downton Abbey’) gets the least amount of screentime but tugs at the heartstrings the most as he tries to prove himself in the battle and save Michelangelo’s ‘Madonna and the Child’.
Aside from a few sombre moments, the crew discovering a barrel full of gold teeth from death camp prisoners ranking as one of the darkest, ‘The Monuments Men’ is an enjoyable caper that shines a light on a little known chapter of war without subjecting its audience to anything too heavy handed. It may not be as deep as some want it to be but I don’t see there being a problem with a film that just sets out to entertain – something this does in spades.
My rating 3.5/5 (‘Men’ prove monumentally amusing)

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