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A Private War

February 4, 2019

A US court has found the Syrian government liable for war correspondent Marie Colvin’s death, just as a film about her arrives in UK cinemas.

On Thursday, Colvin’s death in 2012 was deemed an “extrajudicial killing” by US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who ordered President Bashar al-Assad’s government to pay $302.5m (£231m) in damages.

Colvin died in the besieged Syrian city of Homs alongside French photographer Remi Ochlik when the building they were in was shelled.

It was an “unconscionable crime”, according to the judge. And it features in A Private War, in which British actress Rosamund Pike plays the formidable Sunday Times correspondent.

Pike was in London promoting the film when the results of the civil legal case, filed by Colvin’s family in 2016, were made public.

The Gone Girl actress said the “astonishing” verdict was “a resounding declaration” that the Assad regime was “guilty on all counts”.

She told ITV News: “What Marie was saying was powerful enough that the leaders of a powerful regime felt the need to kill her for it.”

Colvin’s family is likely to face a lengthy battle to recover any damages from the Syrian government, which was not involved in defending the case.

Colvin’s fate inevitably features in A Private War, which also depicts her previous reporting in Iraq, Sri Lanka, Libya and Afghanistan.

In the film, Pike wears the black eye patch that became Colvin’s trademark for the last 11 years of her life.

The correspondent began wearing it after losing the sight in her left eye when she was struck by shrapnel from an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) while reporting on the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka in 2001.

Pike, whose other films include A United Kingdom and Die Another Day, says she was drawn to play Colvin because she “doesn’t fit any stereotype of a woman on screen”.

She tells the BBC: “I thought, if the right film-maker gets this subject, the world is going to be excited to meet this fierce, complicated, extraordinary woman.”

The film-maker in question is Matthew Heineman, director of such acclaimed documentaries as Cartel Land (2015) and City of Ghosts (2017).

Pike admits some trepidation about playing the lead, not least because she is 16 years younger than Colvin was at the time of her death.

“I definitely met with anxiety from people who knew her, many of whom did not want a film made,” says the actress, who turned 40 last weekend.

“But I stressed from the start that my only interest in doing this was to put an embodiment of Marie on screen her friends and family could recognise.

“I just wanted to disappear really – to shed my own skin and be her. That was my sole aim.”

Pike’s disappearing act involved altering her posture, gesturing differently and emulating Colvin’s penchant for smoking up to 50 cigarettes a day.

“I had to embrace that with a passion,” she explains. “I had to go with the attitude that everything would be better with a cigarette.”

And then there was the aforementioned eye patch, the donning of which made Pike admire Colvin’s fortitude under fire even more.

“You’ve lost a significant amount of your peripheral vision and your ability to perceive depth,” she marvels. “It was a huge disadvantage to her.”

Shooting A Private War in Jordan saw Pike pretend to run through sniper and mortar fire, scenes that left her “doubly in awe of what she did”.

“You never feel in danger, but you can imagine how it might feel if it was real and how absolutely terrifying it would be,” she elaborates.

Colvin’s fateful final assignment has already inspired a film documentary, Under the Wire, which will be shown on BBC Four on 11 February.

A biography, written by her colleague Lindsey Hilsum, was published last year, while the article on which A Private War was based can be found on the Vanity Fair website.

For all that, Pike believes drama can still have a role in bringing Colvin’s story and the plights of the people she wrote about to a wider audience.

“To a younger audience who are not familiar with her at all, I think she can be a heroine or role model,” the actress says.

“She’s somebody truly admirable to get behind and then go and discover.”

A Private War can be seen in UK cinemas on 4 February in a one night only event screening followed by a cast Q&A. It will go on general release on 15 February.

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