MOLOKAI: THE STORY OF FATHER DAMIEN (Paul Cox, 1999) was derided by some critics for painting too noble a portrait of the real Father Damien, a Belgian priest who travelled to Hawaii in 1873 to care for an abandoned leper colony. Damien was recently canonized by the Church that deserted him in his lifetime, which is the only irony in his story. Dutch-born director Cox (his forthcoming film, Innocence, a devastating story of love between old people, should not be missed) has no time for irony. So Molokai deals unapologetically with a true saint. It doesn't, however, follow movie-of-the-week cliches. Australian David Wenham portrays Damien as battling unfeeling officials because he has to, not because he wants to convince anyone of his goodness.
Wenham's deeply felt performance make up for the film's legitimate flaws. Cox was forced to cast known actors like Peter O'Toole, Sam Neill and Kris Kristofferson in smaller roles, with mixed results. We're so used to warts-and-all biographies that when someone makes a film about a decent human being, we think the depiction must be incomplete. Wasn't he drinking or screwing around on the sly? Father Damien was better than that. Don't hold it against him. NNNN (February 20, Kingsway)too good, but it's true