This is one of those films you've been meaning to get around to seeing. I love war movies - what guy doesn't? Doesn't much matter if it's Starship Troopers to Breaker Morant, they're all good to see even just once.
There are always those war movies that slip through the cracks due to their reputation, like The Bridge Too Far, where the elephantine production tended to overshadow the movie itself. Shining Through is one such film.
Is it a vanity piece for Melanie Griffith? Are Michael Douglas and the rest of the illustrious cast turning up to pay the rent?
The film is presented as a retrospective, or continuous 'flashback'. It is the present day. Melanie Griffith is in old age being interviewed by the BBC. This bit has Griffith and Douglas in some very odd-looking 'old age' makeup and it's compounded by the whole sequence being extremely mawkish. Griffith does the voiceover work for the entire film. Therein lies one issue I'll get onto...
Griffith plays a female spy who was inadvertently pushed into duty during World War II. She started the war as a German speaking secretary for an American legal firm. It is that ability alone that allows her to infiltrate German society to acquire Nazi secrets for the American war effort. She ends the war a heroine.
The bits in between are what you'll probably find hard to take. Michael Douglas is her boss - a lawyer who works for the government. Douglas is as you've come to love and expect - he's overly confident, sometimes irrationally cold-hearted and again, subject to some very strong-willed females. He's also subject to Melanie's breathy, high-pitched voice and as usual, he's no good around assertive, overtly sexual women. If it's not a rabbit in a pot, it's an icepick. Or the Gestapo. Poor Michael.
Melanie Griffith is acting her heart out, but it's a tough pair of pumps to fill. It's a combination of factors that make her perhaps miscast for the role, least of which is her voice. She's a little too apple pie American to be a convincing German housekeeper/cook/spy.
The three top calibre actors (Neeson, Richardson and Gielgud) are walking through their roles in a convincing, but very script-limited manner. Neeson is a Nazi officer with the typical Teutonic restraint that this role demands. Gielgud and Richardson are covert resistance operatives; the former always in a smoking jacket and the latter in a series of fashionable period dresses.
Jan De Bont does the cinematography and it shows. This is a lavish production with an expensive budget put to good use. There is plenty of military hardware on display and there is a clever melding of B&W white footage into the main story. De Bont seems to have looked at past war films, perhaps even old black and white ones, and has been able to extract the feel of the era. Perhaps he could have done a passable job as the director, however his past work would not support that assumption.
The set designers have very accurately recreated the feel and look of pre-war America and Germany, although the sense of the period tends to be quite hackneyed - that is faceless legions of German troopers with Alsatian guard dogs and everyone under suspicion asked to produce identification ("pepperz plez"). There are plenty of open-topped Mercedes staff cars, minature Minox cameras and Walther pocket pistols. Even Hitler gets a showing. Yes it's that kind of Nazi Germany...
I would note that this is a modern version of World War II with the accepted leeway into various accents and mannerisms. The recent film Enemy at the Gates is also like this, with Russians having English accents etc. Accept it and move on. You'll also have to accept the script/screenplay, which has the Americans and Nazis doing things that are just very unbelievable but again, this is a dramatisation and not in any way accurate.
The transfer is of the high calibre that we've come to expect from Fox. Perhaps I've been spoilt by their past catalogue which is consistently outstanding.
It is 2.35:1 anamorphic and typical of modern productions. The rendition is very good with what I would say is an accurate, but not top tier, transfer. The colours and sharpness levels are good with the mist, rain and smoke of war torn Germany looking wispy and translucent. That's usually a tough challenge for older productions. The colourful fashion and Art Deco styling is well represented, with solid colours and high saturation contrasting with the bleakness of a shellshocked Germany.
The numerous night scenes are well rendered with sufficient black levels and detail. The greys of curfewed Nazi Germany have an interesting texture that is reminiscent of black and white films. It looks like the 'ghetto' that you would expect.
There's not much wrong with the transfer. Maybe some isolated frame damage and some bits of poor sharpness in certain places. There are some unconvincing inserted shots, like where the budget apparently ran out.
There is a single Dolby 5.1 track at 384k/s. Before you think war movie = booms and full discrete surround, this is 1992 and Dolby Digital has yet to arrive.
This is a very front-centric film with limited action sequences. There are a number of large explosions that work the sub and some obvious remixing to split surrounds, but this is a drama film mostly.
Now this is my dilemma - vocals are indeed quite intelligible, however even the best, most fantastic fronts/centre will be hard pressed to make Melanie Griffith 100% intelligible. This is compounded by the fact that she speaks conversational German. It's like Betty Boop reciting what should be a fairly terse and tense script, however I can see how some people might find that unintentionally amusing.
Music is of good quality with the USO bands and period pieces sounding quite melodic. Michael Kamen does the score but it's not a memorable one.
The extras are very limited and of standard fare. There's an average quality theatrical trailer presented full screen and in stereo. There is a short featurette that looks like a standard 'making of' promo. Horrifically uninteresting. There are also some soundbytes from the various cast members presented as clickable menu items, however they are also excerpts from press material.
This is a strange film. It's not a complete loss, however it is like a lot of films of late - very expensive and beautiful looking but ultimately very hollow. A rental I think because it will carry itself for the two hours reasonably well.