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Review: A Private War (Marie Colvin biopic)

A Private War, the biopic about Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin, finally puts one of journalism’s largest characters on a screen to match, painting a picture of a brilliant but tormented reporter.

The film takes its title from Vanity Fair article Marie Colvin’s Private War, published a few months after she was killed in a rocket attack on a makeshift media centre in Homs, Syria, in February 2012.

The movie goes on general release on 15 February. By coincidence, Colvin has been back in the news recently after a US judge ruled last week that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime was liable for her death.

In A Private War we follow Colvin (played by Rosamund Pike – who delivers a transformative performance worthy of more awards attention) through the last ten years of her life, up to and including her death.

As its title might suggest, the film centres on the personal struggle Colvin faced in reconciling her desire to keep on reporting from zones of conflict with her ability to live with the trauma of what she had seen.

Not only does Colvin bear the physical scars from her dangerous profession – she famously lost an eye to grenade shrapnel – but the mental ones too.

Director Matthew Heineman has said he did not want to make a “traditional biopic”, but rather something more akin to a “psychological thriller”.

He paints a complex picture of a woman who lived her life in contradiction: tough, but driven by compassion for those suffering under the lash of war, vitally intelligent but often reckless, brave, but also perhaps addicted to danger, charismatic, but troubled. Above all a master of her craft.

In many ways, Colvin feels almost like the archetype of a war reporter – something approaching cliché even – but if so it’s one she has helped build, her brilliance and the power of her work defining the field.

Perhaps most powerfully, we see Colvin – equal parts tenacity and American charm – break down as she struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. Plagued by vivid images of the violent scenes she excelled in reporting to the world, a symptom of the condition.

“You’ve seen more war than most soldiers,” Sean Ryan, her foreign desk editor at the Sunday Times (played by Tom Hollander), tells her at one point. It’s a powerful reminder of the toll on journalists writing the “rough draft of history”, whose mental health can often be overlooked.

Heineman delivers the action in a straight-forward style, passing through events in Colvin’s life at pace and drawing heavily on his background as a documentary filmmaker (Cartel Land, City of Ghosts).

“I wanted to embrace my documentary roots, not escape them” Heineman has said of his approach to the film.

He further blurs the lines of fiction and non-fiction by using actual Syrian refugees living in Jordan – where some of the film is shot – as extras and getting Pike to speak to them in character, yielding up real-life stories.

Other nods to his documentary past come in the form of narrated scenes, using Colvin’s own elevated reporting of the situation. But some of the dramatic tension is lost through this nod to cinema verité.

One scene in particular does stand out, as Heineman transports Colvin from London to a war-torn home through the slamming of a door.

Colvin is centre stage throughout the movie, almost to the exclusion of all others. Her lovers and friends are little more than rough sketches – Stanley Tucci makes an all-too-brief cameo – with only Colvin’s constant companion, war photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan), who was with her when she died, and editor Ryan, given added dimensions.

There’s also not much in the way of newsroom drama to delight fans of recent journalism blockbusters Spotlight and The Post, although this is perhaps understandable given Colvin was hardly desk-bound.

Such is the power of cinema that A Private War will likely become the most accessible and well-known version of Colvin’s story. It shows the personal cost of her exceptionally dangerous work, as well as her remarkable character, and will rightly ensure that her memory lives on.

A Private War, produced by Altitude Films, is in cinemas from 15 February.

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