The opening setup for Paul Weitz’s adaptation of the Ann Patchett bestseller takes place at a lavish dinner party thrown for the president of an unnamed South American country (think Peru). The after-dinner entertainment is Roxane Coss ( Julianne Moore), an internationally celebrated operatic soprano (think Renée Fleming, who supplies the voice). The guests are a glittering assembly of politicians, diplomats, and business heavies, including Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe), a wealthy Japanese industrialist who may have plans to build a factory in the country.
This dinner offers something of a metaphor for the movie. The setting is handsome, the surroundings opulent, the guests A-list, the silver and crystal sparkling. It’s all so elegant and beautifully rendered that you hardly notice when the food arrives that it’s a bit disappointing.
We don’t really know how good the food is at this banquet. But in any case, more vexing problems arise. As Roxane is warbling a post-prandial aria, a bunch of masked, gun-wielding guerrillas break into the mansion and take everybody hostage — and don’t you hate it when that happens?
They demand the release of all political prisoners. They’re actually after President Masuda (Phil Nee), but he’s not there, having begged off at the last minute. This is very upsetting to the terrorists, but they decide their next best bargaining chip is Roxane, whose voice they figure will melt the hearts of the authorities if they trot her out onto the balcony and get her to sing. So they let the rest of the women guests go, but keep her behind.
They are an idealistic bunch of rebels, and they have underestimated the hardness of the authorities’ hearts. The singing ploy doesn’t work. The hostage crisis drags on for days, weeks (the story was inspired by the Japanese Embassy hostage crisis that took place in Lima from December 1996 to April 1997).
Subplots thicken, and romances blossom, including one between Roxane and Hosokawa, reminding us that after all, it’s only a movie. Negotiations, handled by a courageous Red Cross negotiator (an excellent Sebastian Koch, develop and falter. We come to see the strengths and weaknesses of captors and captives, and we are shown the underlying humanity of these gun-toting terrorists, but we can never forget that their upper hand is based on their willingness to slaughter innocent people to achieve their goals.
The more human and friendly and sympathetic and jolly everyone gets, the more certain we become that this is a standoff that cannot end well.
— Jonathan Richards