David Locke (Nathan Clark Sapsford) is a former British soldier turned UN war crimes investigator in the directorial debut of writer/director Alastair Newton Brown Here Be Dragons, a film timed in the years after the Yugoslav wars set for its world premiere this week at Cinequest. In the years since the traumatic war, Locke has spent his time bringing a myriad of individuals to justice and believing that one, paramilitary commander Ivan Novak (Slobodan Bestic), died before Locke could get to him. Just as he faces the prospect of early retirement, out of the woodwork a war victim named Emir Ibrahimovic Svetislav "Bule" Gonic surfaces to announce that he has located Novak living under an assumed name in Belgrade. Despite the resistance of his superiors, Locke sets out for Belgrade to bring Novak to justice, however, after ingratiating himself with Novak's estranged wife (Marija Bergam) and son begins to question the morality of his mission.
Impeccably shot by Marc Windon, Here Be Dragons is a slow sizzle thriller with as many psychological thrills as action thrills through at least 2/3 of the film's just over two-hour running time.
To his credit, Brown has crafted a more intelligent action/thriller. Here Be Dragons is just as concerned with the personal and universal implications of justice as it is with the actual perpetuating of it. Here Be Dragons digs deeper and more thoughtfully and seeks to understand the layers of justice and the depths to which humanity will go in order to bring light into darkness.
While there are wonderful pieces to Here Be Dragons, as a whole the film struggles at times to put all of its puzzle pieces together. Sapsford, also a producer on the film, is stark and grizzled but never quite achieves the level of unquenched soulfulness that one would expect from a man who has waited 25 years to exact justice. While his detachment may be understandable, a good majority of 2/3 of the film is spent with Locke in varying stages of brooding and I just never completely bought into his journey.
For a thriller, Here Be Dragons is jarringly lacking in actual thrills.While its drama is often quite effective, action sequences that should be fraught with suspense fail to ignite a spark and play out with a lack of tension.
On the other hand, Here Be Dragons is at its finest when characters are facing each other one-on-one. Locke's encounters with Novak are filled to the brim with a psychological tension and there's a heavy sense of dread that permeates every scene between Locke and Marija Bergam's Mira. Indeed, Bergam is without question one of the film's highlights.
Brian Cachia's original score is atmosphere-setting and adds a layer of emotional resonance truly needed in the film. Slobodan Bestic also excels as Novak and in his assumed identity once he surfaces as a healer, rather ironically, for those with PTSD.
With Here Be Dragons just beginning its festival journey, this meaningful drama will no doubt experience a few tweaks along the way. It's reasonable to expect that the film, which I'd expect to be up an indie or arthouse deal at Cinequest, will likely attract those who will appreciate Brown's more ambitious take on the themes of justice and revenge. Here Be Dragons is a promising directorial debut from Brown, an uncompromising search inward wrapped around universal issues and the desperation that anyone who's ever experienced significant trauma feels in searching for light when immersed in the dark.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic