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A-Pix Entertainment presents
Molokai: The Story Of Father Damien (1999)

"You're a good man Damien, but you'd better learn to bend. Like those trees, the ones that don't bend - break."
- Rudolph Meyer (Kris Kristofferson)

Review By: Justin Stephen   
Published: November 02, 2000

Stars: David Wenham
Other Stars: Peter O'Toole, Kris Kristofferson, Sam Neill, Derek Jacobi, Alice Krige, Leo McKern, Kate Ceberano, Tom Wilkinson, Jan DeCleir
Director: Paul Cox

Manufacturer: Technicolor
MPAA Rating: PG for mild violence, scenes of leprosy.
Run Time: 02h:02m:13s
Release Date: September 26, 2000
UPC: 783722703434
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
C+ C-B-B B-

DVD Review

In 1977, Pope Paul VI declared Father Damien to be venerable, the first of three steps that lead to sainthood. In 1995, Pope John Paul II declared him blessed, the second step. Father Damien deVeuster was born in Belgium in 1840, pursued studies in the priesthood, and ventured to Hawaii as a missionary in 1865. Ordained the following year, he worked among Hawaii's natives until 1873 when he volunteered to work among the lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. He would remain there until his death in 1889, quit literally sacrificing himself for the benefit of the badly neglected occupants of Molokai. Molokai: The Story of Father Damien is a biopic that covers the sixteen years that Damien spent on this desolate island.

The first documented case of Hansen's disease (the proper medical term for leprosy) was discovered in 1846. Within just a few years, the disease had spread dramatically and, beginning in 1866, known victims were quarantined on the isolated island of Molokai to hamper the spread of the disease. When Damien first arrived on Molokai, he discovered deplorable living conditions. Most of the island's unfortunate occupants slept in makeshift lean-tos made of branches and leaves or out in the open. Few buildings, no proper medical care, or even potable water was available. The ships that dropped off additional lepers would often stop offshore, pushing the victims and supplies over the side so sink or swim. Damien immediately set to work, repairing the church, building shelters, caring for the sick. He began writing letters to government and church officials, pleading for more funds and help to care for these forgotten souls. Many of these pleas went ignored. Money donated to his cause, including 1000 pounds from the Prince of Wales, was diverted by corrupt officials within the government and Catholic Church. On the other hand, he was undeniably successful in dramatically improving conditions on the island, as well as raising international awareness of the plight of the island's diseased inhabitants. Hawaii's Princess Liliuokalani herself even visited the island in person after hearing about Damien's efforts.

Father Damien's dedication to his cause would eventually cost him his life. He contracted Hansen's disease himself in 1884. Despite his rapidly failing health, he continued to work tirelessly towards improving the conditions on the island. Finally, in 1886, he received some help in the form of Brother Joseph Dutton. Additionally, just prior to his death, a team of nuns led by Mother Marianne Cope arrived to assist in caring for the sick and dying. They would carry on his cause after his demise at the age of 49.

Filling the title role is a relatively unknown Australian actor named David Wenham. Wenham does manage to immerse himself in the role reasonably well but Damien ends up being a very one-dimensional character. This man may be one step away from being a saint, but he was also a man. Wenham's Father Damien shows far too little evidence of that. Many of the supporting roles are filled by prominent actors. Screen veteran Sam Neill is wasted in a cookie-cutter corrupt politician role. Kris Kristofferson, an actor who has never impressed me with his dramatic range, doesn't do so here either as the Molokai rancher Rudolph Meyer. Probably most impressive among the supporting players is screen legend Peter O'Toole, who plays William Williamson, the only non-native leper on the island when Damien arrives. The growing relationship between his Williamson and the Father is probably the most compelling element of the film. Many of the smaller roles are filled by actual Molokai natives, many of them surviving Hansen's disease victims. They have very little collective acting experience and it glaringly shows.

Molokai: The Story of Father Damien has some good film lineage behind it. Paul Cox, relatively unknown in the U.S., has been an active director in Australia since 1965. His prominent film credits include Lonely Hearts, Man of Flowers, and 1991's A Woman's Tale. Helping him craft this film is screenwriter John Briley, the winner of the 1982 Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Gandhi. As brilliant a film as Gandhi is, Molokai isn't. A common mistake made by biopic filmmakers is trying to cover too much in too little time. Molokai makes this mistake, trying to compellingly cover the last 16 years of Damien's life in just two hours of runtime. The film's events seem very disconnected from one another and it badly lack's cohesion as a whole. Worse still, for a film that deals with the story of a man who devotes himself selflessly to the welfare of a leper colony, Molokai is astoundingly bland and lifeless. To illustrate, in one scene late in the film, we watch as lepers are forced to jump from a ship to swim to shore. Many of them, among them children, drown in the rough seas. The scene should horrify the viewer, and it does, but it was remarkably unmoving. Molokai: The Story of Father Damien should have been a much more powerful film than it was.

Rating for Style: C+
Rating for Substance: C-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The often impressive cinematography, the sweeping shots of the wonderful Molokai landscape, are quite likely Molokai's greatest asset. Unfortunately, Unipix/A-Pix has chosen to not anamorphically enhance this film's image, denying the viewer the chance to view it in all its glory on a 16x9 television. A tragedy.

Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, Molokai's image features nice clarity. However, colors are quite noticeably muted and some faint graininess is present in some of the film's less active shots.

The packaging for this DVD mistakenly claims that the disc comes with both a widescreen and full-frame transfer but the disc contains only the widescreen transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Presented in digital stereo, Molokai makes heavy use of atmospherics. The island of Molokai is a windy place and that almost constant wind, along with Wim Merten's original score, exude nicely. The transfer could have certainly benefited from a dedicated surround channel but this is a pretty solid stereo presentation. Dialogue is generally clear throughout with decent separation between the speaking, score, and atmosphere. A solid, but unexceptional audio transfer.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Alpha
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single
Layers Switch: n/a

Extras Review: Molokai: The Story of Father Damien comes with a 38-minute documentary that serves as a very thorough companion piece to the film. Interview segments with every major cast and crewmember and behind-the-scenes footage enhance nicely the viewer's understanding of Damien as a man and the filmmaking process behind Molokai. This "making of" feature is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen. The disc also comes with the theatrical trailer.

The hearing-impaired may want to consider this disc's lack of either English subtitles or captions. Only Spanish subtitles are offered.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

For a film with such an inherently compelling subject, Molokai: The Story of Father Damien is remarkably unmoving and, dare I say, boring. While it succeeds somewhat as a visual and educational experience, it falls well short as a dramatic one.


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