Originally conceived as an Oliver Stone project five years ago, Beyond Borders--set in Ethiopia, Cambodia and Chechnya--has the feel of today's headlines. Indeed, the scenes set in the above trouble spots have an almost overpowering sense of suffering and danger. The film is an unusual combination of Third World horrors and intimate love story.

Beyond Borders centers on Sarah Jordan (Angelina Jolie), a beautiful and sensitive American woman married to Henry Bauford (Linus Roache), the son of a wealthy philanthropist. In 1984, at a gala evening to raise money for UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), Dr. Nick Callahan (Clive Owen) accidentally knocks Sarah out of her chair and onto the floor as he races for the stage in a desperate effort to protest a cut in budget. He cannot bear the fact that people will starve as a consequence and brings an emaciated Ethiopian child with him to make his point. Someone throws a banana on stage, and Callahan remarks that the 300 calories of that banana exceed the nutritional level consumed by the average Ethiopian child in a day.

Of course, security removes the doctor from the building, but not before Sarah's impressionable heart has been deeply touched. She immediately raises 40,000 pounds in cash for trucks and a shipment of food for Dr. Callahan's aid station, with the reluctant support of her husband. She accompanies her donation to Ethiopia and discovers that conditions are far more harsh and inhospitable than she ever dreamed, and that her generous gift of provisions will last a mere three or four days. She has a sparring relationship with Callahan, but becomes friendly with Elliott Hauser (Noah Emmerich), a warm, personable young American.

After several years, Sarah joins Callahan on a mission to Cambodia. Here, she discovers that Callahan is running guns, not for his own profit, but in order to provide food and medicine to refugees of the bloody Khmer Rouge. In a desperate ruse, Sarah is forced to kick and abuse Nick in order to prevent a sadistic Khmer Rouge officer from killing their entire group. Later, in the most emotionally wrenching moment of the film, this same officer places a live grenade in an infant's hand to demonstrate his contempt for life.

Nick and Sarah are barely able to escape across the Cambodian border to a Red Cross hospital, bringing with them the population of a small village they had come to help. By this point, they have acknowledged their love and are sleeping together. Unbeknownst to Nick, Sarah becomes pregnant. She returns to London to continue working for UNHCR and gives birth to a baby girl.

Finally, a few years later in 1995--through the help of Sarah's TV journalist sister Charlotte (Teri Polo)--Sarah discovers that Callahan is working in Chechnya. Although she is still married to her rather weak husband--for the sake of the children--she feels compelled to travel to Chechnya for love of Callahan. There, she learns he has been kidnapped. Sarah bribes the kidnappers to guide her to his whereabouts, a ramshackle hut near a mountain ridge. No sooner have the two lovers embraced than their position falls under missile attack from helicopters, and they are able to escape, determined to reach the safety of a Red Cross facility. This time, however, they are not as lucky as they were in Cambodia.

While Jolie gives a credible performance, the greater impact is provided by Owen's powerful work. His intensity never wanes, even in the quietest of moments. Still, this is clearly a project very close to Jolie's heart. Off-camera, she works for UNHCR and adopted a Cambodian child, and she obviously had a significant impact on the direction of Caspian Tredwell-Owen's informative script. Coupled with Martin Campbell's fine direction and Phil Meheux's breathtaking photography, Beyond Borders is one of those rare big-budget films that has something of vital importance to say about the real world, and pulls no punches saying it.

--Bruce Feld