For all of its lush scenery and high production values, The Children of Huang Shi is enfeebled by the stiff performance of its leading man Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Blessedly, he doesn’t look as bored as he is as Henry VIII in Showtime’s The Tudors, but his one-note, upbeat, idealistic portrayal of George Hogg — an English journalist who led tens of children out of Huang Shi to safety in 1937 — only makes sense as the closing credits roll, and actual survivors of that group essentially describe him as a jovial Jesus.
His female counterpart, an American nurse played by Radha Mitchell, does far better with her material. This is not the Mitchell of Finding Neverland or Melinda and Melinda. There’s nothing refined or airbrushed about her; her masculine body language and rectangular face are contrasted only by her long, wavy, blonde locks. When she lets them down, anyway.
After nicking the papers of a Red Cross employee to gain access to the front lines of the unofficial war being fought between China and Japan, Hogg witnesses unutterable horrors, and nearly finds himself dead. A communist leader (in the form of Chow Yun Fat) who likes to blow things up, comes to Hogg’s aid and it is through him that Hogg gets caught up in the world of the children of Huang Shi.
Orphans of the violence, the children are slow to embrace Hogg, who is the only adult in their midst — save an elderly, quite funny cook. Nevertheless, he becomes their teacher, far more invested in them then he had been in the assignment that brought him to the danger zone.
Despite its R rating, this is certainly a “based-on-a-true-story,” power-of-the-human-spirit kind of film you can take your more mature children (I’m thinking 12 or 13) to see; there are some scenes of war violence, but nothing too graphic, and nothing too out of the blue, so your instincts should tell you when little eyes need covering.