The Monuments Men (12A)

Starring: George Clooney, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville 

Director: George Clooney

Running time: 118 minutes

Released: February 14, UK and Ireland  

IS A piece of art worth a man’s life?

George Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov relentlessly posit that question in their latest passion project, an adaptation of Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter’s book The Monuments Men (TMM).

It’s a version of the story of the platoon of men who, during World War II, were tasked with protecting the valuable historical works desired by Hitler for his planned Fuhrer Museum.

The mission concentrated on sculpture and works of art as the Germans retreated – under orders to destroy everything in the event of Hitler’s death – and eventually, an astounding five million artefacts were recovered.

As the action begins, Clooney’s Frank Stokes flags up the thefts with the US President before assembling an expert squad (John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and Jean Dujardin) and heading into the field to work alongside the armed forces to retrieve, or protect, key pieces.

They split up in order to pursue leads, bringing Damon’s James Granger into contact with Cate Blanchett’s Frenchwoman Claire Simone, someone who has key information about key thefts from Parisian collectors and galleries.

Whilst this is undoubtedly a story which deserves to be told, Clooney’s version fails to wholly convince, despite him giving it his best Clark Gable, ‘tache and all, performance-wise. 

Initial trailers for the film borrowed David Holmes’ outstanding Ocean’s Eleven score, and intimated that TMM would ape the caper-y style of the Oceans trilogy, but it fails to secure anything approaching their level of easy charm. 

The film’s actual soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat is contrived, and, generally, its weak structuring and script hammer home the same message repeatedly. It tells rather than shows its audience, and doesn’t give its actors anything to work with except clichéd lines implying faux tension or bonhomie.

Thus, individual characters are not established as they should be, a problem exacerbated by dodgy accents and casting which might have worked on paper but fails to convince in practice – Goodman as a sculptor and Damon (who replaced Daniel Craig) as the curator of medieval art from the MET?

It does, however, succeed in parts, including its nod to the war going on around this quest – the Holocaust, in particular – and the fine performance given by young English actor Dimitri Leonidas as a German Jewish member of the team.

But it lapses again into redundant cliché when a big emotional moment relies on the heartrending Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, and when the ‘poignant voiceover’ hoary old chestnut is over-used.

Things improve towards the conclusion when the team are racing the Russians (who planned to keep anything they found as reparation, rather than return it to rightful owners when possible) to find two of the most valuable works, Michelangelo’s Madonna with child from Bruges and the early 15 th century Ghent Altarpiece.

And, thankfully, the inescapable realities of the core tale are never less than gripping.

Watching the film is a timely reminder of art’s power to communicate who we are and, more importantly, who we were.

Joanne Mace