There is a poignancy throughout Rory Feek's Josephine that is impossible to escape, a quiet sense that this southern love song set near the end of the Civil War is partly an artistic statement and partly the quiet expressions of a grieving husband and father whose journey toward letting go involves the artistry that has always defined his life.
Rest assured that Josephine is, first and foremost, a love story and to view the film through the lens of a Civil War drama would be a mistake and likely lead to a lesser satisfying viewing experience. The film is set and takes place throughout 1864 and toward the end of the Civil War, Josephine (Alice Coulthard, The Last Ship) has patiently waited for the return of her beloved husband John from the war yet he has not returned.
She has nothing left. No daughter. No food. No crops.
Desperate to find John, Josephine decides to disguise herself as a man and join in the Conferederate Army, an action taken by approximately 1,000 women on both sides of the Civil War but an action fraught with challenges, risks and battles both internal and external as Josephine not only battles the enemy but the men of her unit and her own identity.
By now, the story of Rory Feek is well known to country music fans and pretty much anyone with an open heart. Feek was one half of Joey & Rory, a Grammy-winning country and bluegrass duo featuring Rory alongside his wife, Joey. The two took 3rd place on CMT's show Can You Duet and, perhaps more than anything, just sort of warmed your hearts long before their story turned more tragic. On March 4, 2016, Joey passed away from metastatical cervical cancer and images of Joey's final days alongside Rory and their two-year-old daughter Indiana who was born with Down Syndrome, made their story one that captured the hearts of America. Rory Feek served two tours in the U.S. Marine Corps and followed up his military duty by moving to Nashville and writing or co-writing top country tunes for the likes of Collin Raye ("Someone You Used to Know"), Blake Shelton ("Some Beach"), Clay Walker ("The Chain of Love"), Mark Wills ("Rich Man"), Jimmy Wayne ("I Will") and a number of others.
Inspired by a Joey & Rory song of the same name, Josephine feels like a Joey & Rory song while remaining faithful, at least for the most part, to the need to also be a cohesive and involving motion picture.
The fact that Josephine closed out the 2016 Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis is a pretty strong indicator that the film isn't intended as a hardcore travelogue through the Civil War. The film is, at its very core, a love story where we're pretty sure but never absolutely sure that those involved in the love story will ever reunite again. Josephine more than hints at the risks involved in Josephine's decision to join the battle, not just the risk of life but the risk of being discovered, being sexually assaulted and so on. Josephine is guided quietly by British actress Alice Coulthard's quietly disciplined performance as the woman for whom love requires she risk everything. Coulthard's performance is brave and bold, yet simultaneously vulnerable and unnerving. It's a subtle performance that fits the subtleties of a melancholy Gillian Welch song with a beauty that lingers long after the closing credits have rolled by.
Boris McGiver, most known as Tom Hammerschmidt on television's House of Cards, gives a soulful performance as Tally, an older gent who is really too old to fight but too young not to. He's a wounded man who masks his wounds in a false bravado that always feels like it's destined for tragedy, yet he's a loyal protector of sorts Josephine. Jessejames Locorriere plays the film's kinda sorta baddie, an abusive troop leader with a history of trouble but a man that Locorriere never plays as a one-note baddie.
D.P. Bryan Allen beautifully captures the southern countryside that far too often turned into an almost gothic graveyard, his lens capturing the quiet desperation that fueled a battle that meant different things for different people. The script, co-written by Aaron Carnahan and Feek, is in some ways a rather cliche'd love story but it's also in all the ways that country music fans love their love stories. It's kind of like sitting around in your F-150 recounting stories of the war, stories that are now romanticized and twisted in sentimental ways that make for a better story.
The film's accompanying music, from such familiar country names as Loretta Lynn, Gillian Welch and others, is practically an extra character as the melancholy voices serve up country familiars and old-time gospel tunes.
It's difficult to assess the market potential for a film like Josephine, though it's hard to imagine that CMT or some other country music media outlet won't snap up the film and give it a proper distribution. Still on the film fest circuit, Josephine will resonate deeply with those who appreciate a good ole' southern love song set against the backdrop of a war where sometimes that love was all that you had to drive you along from day to day.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic