I can just hear the pitch to the producer: “It’s Schindler’s List meets The Sound of Music.” And, more or less, that’s exactly how Spottiswoode’s The Children of Huang Shi plays out, only without nearly the entertainment value of either of its predecessors. Spottiswoode has never been known for his subtlety, and Children, the true story of British journalist George Hogg and the 60 war orphans he came to care for in 1937, is a mostly lifeless affair, unspooling like a Cliffs Notes version of a great story, with only highlights and no embellished pockets.
Hogg (Rhys Meyers) is seeking the story of the year: what’s really happening in Nanjing during the Japanese occupation of China. He gets in under false pretenses, and after running afoul of the Japanese military, he’s begrudgingly shipped off to an orphanage far from the carnage. He soon wins the boys’ trust and comes to love them as a father, eventually taking them 700 miles over the mountains to the edge of the Gobi Desert and safety. He’s aided by a freedom fighter (Chow), an Australian nurse (Mitchell) and a wealthy merchant (Yeoh).
The story is no doubt a compelling one (the boys’ real-life counterparts are interviewed at the end of the film), and the acting is never less than serviceable. But while Children looks and sounds great, it continually fails to involve us viscerally. Spottiswoode directs as if reading directly from a history book while pointing his crew around, and his awkward cutting from one scene to the next drains the film of emotional heft. Worse, his clumsy use of foreshadowing removes any suspense from the film’s final act. This stands as a film that needed to be made, but don’t be surprised if you’ve forgotten it hours afterward.