Marie Colvin was the New York-born, London-based foreign affairs correspondent who, over a 25-year career with The Sunday Times, covered conflicts in Palestine, Sri Lanka and Iraq before meeting her death in Syria in February 2012. Her life and work - as a woman who spent her days and nights casting an eye over the very worst that men can do - invites fascination and attentive study. In the last year alone, there's been a documentary about her professional relationship with combat photographer Paul Conroy (Under the Wire) and a fiction loosely based on her endeavours (Eva Husson's Girls of the Sun, premiered at Cannes last year); now we have the authorised biopic, brought to the screen by Matthew Heineman, director of the heavy-hitting non-fictions Cartel Land and City of Ghosts. A Private War can seem clunky in places - particularly when outlining the workings of the press in blandly overlit newsrooms - and you catch it having to shoehorn a lot of achievement and tragedy into its 100 minutes. It's both a potted history of one woman's extraordinarily courageous and adventurous life that also means to be a potted history of post-9/11 turmoil, and the work of a documentarist paying tribute to a print journalist who helped the world make greater sense of its most senseless atrocities. That's an awful lot for a mere motion picture to take on, but the storytelling instincts that shaped Heineman's docs haven't entirely deserted the director, and any further wobbliness gets steadied by a fine central performance from the increasingly impressive Rosamund Pike.
This may be a more convincing transformation than Nicole Kidman pulled off in becoming the lived-in, hollowed-out anti-heroine of last month's Destroyer. On a superficial level, it's physical, requiring a previously statuesque blonde to adopt the flyaway hair and perma-dry skin of a woman who's spent more than her fair share of time on long-haul flights, and the eyepatch Colvin gained after standing too close to a Tamil Tiger's rocket blast. Partly, it's technical: Pike duly lowers her voice an octave or two in cultivating a fair approximation of Colvin's gravelly Queens drawl. Yet she also works towards a comprehensive, from-the-inside-out description of a personality forged in the crucible of conflict: steely as weaponry, jagged as shrapnel, a walking collection of scars piled atop one another, some healed or healing, others deep and raw. We're left in no doubt that Marie Colvin was a brilliant observer, but also that she wasn't especially easy to be around, in part because she'd seen more of the world's awfulness than most people do, and was still trying to find the words to relate it. (Her exasperated editor, played by Tom Hollander, nails the contradiction: "God knows everybody loves you, Marie, but you are a fucking pain in the arse.") Such toughness feels like a carry-over from Heineman's pulverising documentary work, and there are points here where you feel the director pushing too hard to drive home just how hard-living his hard-nosed protagonist was: take the overworked montage that finds Colvin juggling punching up a gruelling report with a random hook-up and a vodka binge. (Talk about multitasking.) Yet, generally, it's that edge that keeps A Private War honest, and away from anything that might strike the eye as too glossy: it's certainly not the Hollywoodisation of this life one might have feared going in.
Admittedly, the script - by Arash Amel, drawing on Marie Brenner's Vanity Fair article "Marie Colvin's Private War" - presents us with a structural problem, set as it is to tracking a subject obliged to pack up at a moment's notice and ship out to yet another bloodspattered warzone. As drama, A Private War can feel bitty and a bit rushed: there's scant time to develop the themes and continuity one would find in a magazine article, and you'd hope the Sunday Times subs would have rescued the cover we see heading towards the presses with Colonel Gaddafi's name spelt with one d and two fs. Heineman contents to keep moving, the strategy his heroine deployed to stay alive, which ensures an appreciably pacy watch; and in the well-observed combat scenes, you sense the filmmaker revelling in the opportunity to create photorealistic carnage of his own - marshalling his performers, setting off the squibs - rather than stumbling across somebody else's for once. Yet there's a certain collateral damage that derives from the attempt to convert a profile piece into multidirectional widescreen drama: there are naggingly sketchy roles for Greg Wise (as an ex-husband), Jamie Dornan (as Conroy) and Stanley Tucci (as some sort of tycoon with whom Marie shares an erotic-thriller bath at one point), broadly filed under The Men Marie Left in Her Wake. Only when the movie slows down, as it has to during the last-reel siege of Homs, do we get the fuller picture promised. Watching Colvin interviewing a new mother, so stressed by the bombing she can no longer produce milk for her child, and then a recreation of her final CNN bulletin, in which she comprehensively unpicked the Syrian regime's lies, we grasp this singular reporter's ability to mesh micro with macro - what Colvin did on a day-to-day basis, and what that reporting opened our eyes to. Turning words into images can be as rocky a road as turning images into words. With death apparent almost everywhere we look, A Private War is far from the easiest biopic of this awards season - yet one suspects that's exactly how Marie Colvin would have wanted it.
A Private War opens in selected cinemas from Friday.