Holy Lands has so many questions that are never answered. Why does a lapsed Jew retire to Israel to raise pigs – out of all the pastimes he could possibly pick? Why does he never speak to his son, daughter, or practically anyone for that matter? And to top it all off, why is his favourite pet pig called Judas? According to Harry (James Caan), “it’s a long story.” Maybe he just likes to provoke people.
Harry, a retired cardiologist, lives a quiet life in Israel annoying the hell out of Rabbis, Priests and just about anyone with even a hunch of religion in that part of the world. Using his very un-PC sense of humour and typical old man stubbornness to get his way, he becomes increasingly close with one of the local Rabbis, Moshe Cattan (Tom Hollander). Meanwhile, in New York, his estranged son David (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and daughter Annabelle (Efrat Dor) are left to deal with his wife Monica (Rosanna Arquette), who is terminally ill.
Holy Lands goes for emotional resonance and very occasionally hits the mark. Most of the time however, this is a one hundred minute slug through brooding dialogue and questionable writing. Annabelle in particular gets some early monologues that suffer from appalling description (“How could it be that the tears I cry, when they evaporate, end up in the same clouds as the sea? Or the flushed water of a toilet?”). David too has moments that badly miss the mark, such as when he first made love to another man… on 9/11. Meanwhile, in Israel, you hear Harry fire away with his supply of crass jokes and irritation, the resulting laughs an expression of total disbelief. The bare inclusion of all this is questionable. For them to be as badly scripted as they are borders on the tragically comical.
You are forced to work through a number of character archetypes and situations which feel badly dated. Wait, Harry is old and he struggles with technology? Now that’s funny! It also struggles to achieve any depth, any supposedly hidden parallels easily detectable on the surface. Other tried and tested ingredients, like the playwright who retreats to the realm of words to deal with grief, or the woman who gets knocked up abroad – without any build up, in this case – add next to nothing. It means that, despite the preposterous premise, Holy Lands can be fatally boring.
It has one redeeming feature, and that is Caan. Harry is a man who seemingly cares deeply and doesn’t care at all. His aged, weighty weariness is brought out well by Cann, with his flashes of anger and later of sadness coming across as well as they can. His relationship with Hollander’s Rabbi is at times touching, especially when Harry is briefly in hospital, and Hollander also impresses. But their friendship lurches forward for no apparent reason other than the show must go on. Yet again, another misstep.
Caan and Hollander’s chemistry cannot redeem this flawed foray into family love and trigger testing. Perhaps with a stronger script, Holy Lands could come out of the other side with at least some praise-worthy elements to weigh up against its flaws, as with last year’s Green Book. As it is however, this is a fat slab of low-quality and poorly handled pork for a scenario that really necessitates the prime cut.