The Civil War is a time period that doesn’t get explored in most movies. Sure, we love to see our World War II movies, whether it’s Saving Private Ryan, Dunkirk, or Hacksaw Ridge, but the Civil War is full of wonderful stories to tell, fiction or not. The closet Civil War movie that we’ve gotten in the last 10 years or so, was Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, however, that movie had the Civil War as the background, not in the forefront.
Whitney Hamilton’s Union, tells a story that pushed the boundaries of gender roles (in this case, women) during the Civil War. While it could be viewed as authentic to its era with the production design, Union feels almost like a cheap TV movie with odd pacing, unengaging characters, and a poor representation of the impact that the Civil War had on society.
Union’s main premise focuses on a woman, named Grace (Whitney Hamilton), who disguises herself as her dead brother, Henry, in order to survive and fight in the Confederate ranks during the Civil War. With the help of Indians hiding in the mountains, Henry is reunited with the widow, Virginia, who saved his life at the battle of Antietam. He marries Virginia to rescue her from an unfortunate arranged betrothal. They keep each other’s secrets and end up forging an unusual family.
The only redeemable quality in Union is that director and star of the movie herself, Whitney Hamilton, seems as if that she does have a passion about the Civil War. This is demonstrated through the interior designs of people’s houses and even the in the way people are dressed. Hamilton, clearly, has respect for this time of history and her way showcasing it is something that worked well for her. She exempted the right amount of authenticity and focus on the world she laid out for us, as the audience, even though this is already a place of time that once existed. Production designs don’t save a movie from being good or bad, but the craftsmanship she had is going to be something that will work well in her favor in the future.
However, it seems as Hamilton doesn’t really know how to tell an impactful, insightful, or even coherent story because Union comes off as severely dull and flat during its entire 2-hour runtime. It’s one thing to have unique production design, but substance and good characters are really what matter, and Union doesn’t succeed in telling an impactful or insightful story. If the narrative or characters were anywhere near the level as to how good the production design was, then you could have had something worth the watch, but both the overall story of Union felt very uninspiring and the characters lacked charisma and none of them were truly memorable.
Whitney Hamilton isn’t a recognizable actress/director, yet, but her debut with Unions is not a good starting point. As far as her directing goes, she doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. She also features some odd creative choices that seem completely random and totally unnecessary. Hamilton doesn’t make a lot of good impressions with her directing skills because her sensibilities come across as severely amateurish and nothing that bodes well for directing future. Same goes for the writing, of which she also did, and like her directing, she lacks the effort of laying a solid story or even getting great performances out of her actors.
Union is a movie that, on paper, seems to have a promise, but alas, it features a glaring issue that comes across as a nitpick. It’s the notion of Grace pretending to be her dead brother, Henry. Now, it’s not as if that type of trope hasn’t been done in movies before. The Crying Game had Jaye Davidson playing a transgender woman, who then develops a relationship with another man. It worked in that movie because it was believable, and his performance was also great. With Union, Grace dressing like a man just came across a little silly and almost to the point where you couldn’t take her seriously. She clearly is wearing the appropriate clothing that a man would wear in the 1860s, but ultimately it came across jarring and quite hysterical. Nothing about Grace’s appearance as a man was even remotely convincing because, as a consumer, it’s obvious that this is a woman dressed as a man.
Another problem with Grace is that she doesn’t even try to pull off a man’s voice. She’s constantly speaking her normal voice, which adds more frustration to the character. Every gesture or mannerism from Grace never emoted the right amount of believability of her as man. Grace is a very dry character, as is her performance, and it seemed as if there wasn’t a lot of passion in how her character was expressed or even represented. The idea of a woman disguising herself as man during the Civil War is a ripe idea for any story, but the way it was executed in Union was shallow and almost thoughtless.
Union is a very odd and uneven paced movie. What makes things more puzzling is that it constantly cuts to flashbacks that are completely out of the blue. This aspect only adds more frustration because it takes the story out of focus. The way Hamilton showcases the events she keeps cutting to is confusing because we really don’t have any idea what purpose they serve.
One thing that Hamilton is trying to do with this movie is to feature the representation of a romantic relationship between two women during the 1860s. Hamilton was trying to showcase a stronger representation for woman during a time where woman couldn’t do much at all, and while that was an admirable way to tell the story, it and the characters weren’t executed well enough to be worth the investment, which is disappointing when the movie is over 2 hours long.
Civil War movies need just as much spotlight as World War I and World War II movies get. It’s disappointing when you get a movie like Union out of Hollywood, one which definitely features some decent aesthetics to that time of history, and it completely misses the mark.. As stated earlier, Hamilton really cares about this time in American history by showing a unique depiction of life back in the 1860s, but the narrative is severely weak, which is more important than a good-looking movie. It may seem almost impossible for someone to act and direct at the same time, but it’s worked before. Unfortunately, Union doesn’t work in the respect. There’s a great movie that could have a social impact on audiences around the world in Union somewhere, but it’s covered up with stilted dialogue, a weak lead, an uneven pace.
Available on DVD beginning March 25th, 2020.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.