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Man, this title is a power metal ballad just waiting to happen ("With the fire and the sword we carry on!" I told you, DragonForce fans!), but it's not like the filmmakers even knew that when they started adapting Henryk Sienkiewicz's trilogy back in the '60s. That's right, people, it's been a long, long while, but Jerzy Hoffman finally completes this Polish history trilogy in the way that seems only nature: ...with the first installment. I'd say that I don't know if I'm more baffled by the fact that it took Hoffman this long to come out with the follow-up to the, by 1999, 25-year-old "The Deluge", or by the fact that Hoffman adapted this trilogy in reverse order, but make no mistake, the latter is more shocking because as long as it takes to see the final version of "The Deluge", you know that whatever was next in this saga was going to take, like, at least 20 years to make. They spent those last five years trying to come up with the money to make this, [u][b]the most expensive Polish film ever made[/u][/b]... which still cost about $8 million in USD. Hoffman eventually topped that with "Battle of Warsaw" with only $9 million, so in case you have any doubts that Poland is full of Jews, just look at their standard for film budgets to get an idea of how stingy they can be with their money. That's a terrible thing to joke about, because Poland has fought for a long, long, long time, with many, many, many people, to uphold their honor, and if nothing else drives you to respect that, it's the fact that those conflicts have made for some pretty good movies. This one is no exception, as it was ostensibly precious money pretty well-spent, and yet, like this film's budget, there are a few laze-outs in the film's storytelling.
This is something of an old-fashioned historical epic, and by that, I mean that storytelling sticks with a worthy formula, perhaps a little too tightly, hitting trope after trope, occasionally glaringly, until it's able to break the norm with some tonal shifts that would be much more refreshing if they were much more realized. With this installment in Jerzy Hoffman's adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz's classic trilogy, tone is as uneven as it's ever been, as there will be so much tension for so long, before it goes broken swiftly and surely, with comic relief that is made all the more aggravating by an often juvenile cheesiness and flatness that even has the nerve to get trite. Actually, the humor isn't the only thing plagued with certain cheese and flatness, because if nothing else smooths out the transition to lighthearted fluff, it's dramatic weight's always being suppressed by some degree of melodrama that, as a matter of fact, shouldn't be too glaring. Of course, you are given the opportunity to gain a grip on how limited dramatic genuineness is here when you take into account an uneven sense of consequence in this film which derives from a lot of talk and little action, throughout a questionable course, no less. I think it's safe to say that this series set quite the standard for dragging through the arguably superior, yet nonetheless five-hour-long "The Deluge", but at about three hours, this film's runtime still feels a little bloated, at least with all of the inconsistencies that convolute a sense of layering and momentum to this subject matter of great scale, and of an interpretation of only so much realization. Enough is realized to make a rewarding film out of a promising story concept, but this is still more of the same, arguably with a little more tonal and focal unevenness than usual. I can't promise that this film will reward everyone, but I feel that those who go endeared by this epic ought to be thoroughly compelled, even on an aesthetic level.
I kind of question being so quick to laud Krzesimir Dębski's score, as it's exploration is also a little uneven, whether it be because it's so often underused or because it's so often undercooked, yet I still sing the praises for the many beautiful highlights in musical artistry which Dębski utilizes to supplement a sense of importance and scope to this epic. Production designer Andrzej Halinski and costume designers Magdalena Biernawska-Teslawska and Pawel Grabarczyk further supplement that sense by surprisingly subtly, yet unsurprisingly surely restoring 17th century Poland and Ukraine with convincing sweep and an impressive technical proficiency which immerses, partly with the help of worthwhile action sequences. As I said earlier, action is limited in this mostly very talkative epic of a melodrama, but when it does come into play, you can see where a, for Poland, unprecedented budget went, through sweepingly dynamic staging and style which reflect heights in Jerzy Hoffman's lively directorial efforts. Yes, Hoffman has his shortcomings, and ultimately doesn't do as much as he probably should to compensate for his and Andrzej Krakowski's scripted shortcomings, but the final product wouldn't be so compelling if Hoffman didn't do so much right, whether it be working with the style with adequate color, or getting some charismatic performances out of a solid cast. If nothing else, Hoffman really surprises by sustaining a great deal of liveliness, getting over the storytelling slow spells of the predecessors in this series and ultimately making sure that momentum never falls so greatly as to lose entertainment value, even though he can't keep momentum smooth enough to really stress the depths of this story. With that said, through all of its melodrama and reliance on chit-chat and what have you, this subject matter is so promising that it should be hard to make this drama underwhelming, and sure enough, uneven and formulaic storytelling can't entirely obscure the importance and magnitude of this dramatization of the Khmelnytsky Uprising, especially when the inspiration really does spark. There is always something throughout this film to keep you engrossed, whether it be the entertainment value, or the technical proficiency, or enough of a sense of consequence and scope to allow this overambitious and sometimes somewhat lazy epic to transcend its shortcomings as genuinely rewarding to the patient.
Overall, conventions and histrionics keep consistent in storytelling which often hits inconsistencies in tone and a sense of consequentiality throughout its overlong course, until reward value is threatened, almost miraculously secured by the beautiful score work, immersive art direction, solid action and lively direction which do just enough justice to a grand story concept to make Jerzy Hoffman's "With Fire and Sword" an ultimately fairly engrossing conclusion to the nonlinear film adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz's saga.
3/5 - Good
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