Film review: A Private War champions vital role played by journalists during conflict

A Private War sees Rosamund Pike in the role of war correspondent Marie Colvin and Jamie Dornan as photographer Paul Conroy in a film that feels uncomfortably timely, with Syria's brutal war still raging, writes Damon Smith

Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin in A Private War

OSCAR-nominated documentarian Matthew Heineman makes an assured feature film directorial debut with a dramatisation of the life of foreign affairs correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed in 2012 while covering the siege of Homs.

Her selfless crusade for the truth, regardless of the personal cost, flanked by photographer Paul Conroy was powerfully distilled in Christopher Martin's recent documentary Under The Wire.

A Private War stages a similar assault on our nerves, championing the vital role played by journalists in shining a light on moral outrages and injustice in a time of conflict.

Donning a black eye patch, which became Colvin's trademark after she lost the sight in one eye in a grenade blast in Sri Lanka, Rosamund Pike delivers a fearless and ferocious lead performance as a champion of civilian casualties.

"You've seen more war than most soldiers," observes Conroy, played with a wavering Liverpudlian accent by Jamie Dornan before the pair make their courageous intervention in Syria.

At its heart, Heineman's picture is an intimate psychological study that feels uncomfortably timely with civil war continuing to rage in Syria several years after Colvin's death.

That tragic sequence, which bookends the film, is orchestrated with verve and a pulse-quickening combination of handheld camerawork and aerial photography, which captures the devastation of repeated shelling of a city which has already been reduced to smouldering rubble.

Colvin puts herself in the line of fire under the aegis of editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander) so she can open the eyes of readers to atrocities behind enemy lines.

In 2003, she recruits Conroy as her photographer and together they seek out important stories, including the Arab Spring and an exclusive interview with Colonel Gaddafi (Raad Rawi).

Back home in England, Colvin seeks temporary sanctuary from her nightmares in the bed of wealthy businessman Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci) but she is unwavering in her determination to glimpse horrors that would otherwise be buried.

"I see it so you don't have to," she reminds her editor.

When Syria attempts to block foreign journalists from covering the civil war, Colvin and Conroy enter the country without permission, living on their wits to avoid reprisals.

"If the government catches you, they'll kill you," Ryan warns his star reporter.

Anchored by Pike's gutsy portrayal, A Private War weaves between documented fact and artistic licence (Tucci's paramour is fictional) to underscore how one defiant voice can be heard clearly around the world through a cacophony of falling shells.

Arash Amel's script exposes Colvin's deep psychological wounds and the weight of responsibility she carried on broad shoulders far from home.

Annie Lennox's elegiac song A Requiem For A Private War is the final elegant pluck of our heartstrings.

A PRIVATE WAR (15, 100 mins) Drama/War/Romance. Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Tom Hollander, Stanley Tucci, Raad Rawi. Director: Matthew Heineman.

Released: February 15 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)

RATING: 7/10

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