The Extraordinary True Life of George Hogg

It’s easy to understand the
attraction of putting the extraordinary true life of George Hogg to
film. An Englishman bearing witness to and working in war-torn
1930s China, Hogg became the headmaster of a failing school and grew
to succeed where his predecessors had not. Fearing the Japanese
army’s advance, Hogg resolved to lead his students on a perilous 700-mile journey
through the mountains to safety.

Screenwriter James MacManus
learned of Hogg’s
while on
assignment in China for The Daily Telegraph, overhearing that
a statue dedicated to Hogg was being erected in a remote town on the
Mongolian border. Intrigued, MacManus investigated the story. He found and interviewed Rewi Alley, a New Zealander who had known and worked closely with Hogg. MacManus’s story appeared in newspapers
around the world and compelled film producers to commission a screenplay.

Director Roger Spottiswoode provides an agreeable old-Hollywood-style
gloss, and high production values shine throughout. Hogg’s story
is presented earnestly but not too cloyingly, and the film’s photography
(shot on location across China) is beautiful, evocative, and easy to
appreciate on the big screen.

Less effective are some of
the performances, saddled with clunky dialogue and the screenplay’s
need to expedite the passage of time from sequence to sequence, and given
little room to establish themselves beyond the stock purposes they serve.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers (George Hogg), great fun to watch as Henry VIII
on Showtime’s The Tudors, can’t seem to impart the different
kind of passion this material asks for; and Radha Mitchell (Lee Pearson) is oddly vacant in her role as an
American nurse Hogg falls in love with. The easy charisma of
both Chow Yun-Fat (Chen Hansheng, a communist rebel who helps
Hogg) and Michelle Yeoh, (also in Spottiswoode’s James Bond
film Tomorrow Never Dies) as a deposed aristocrat, is stark in
comparison, and they elevate each of their scenes accordingly.

But for a few moments of startling
violence, the movie feels content to create and ride a passable after-school-special
vibe until the very en and through the credits sequence, which hints at the poignancy that is ultimately missing
from the rest of the film.

 The Children of Huang Shi opens June 13 at Landmark’s
Edina Cinema