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The Empire Strikes Back

British epic revived for seventh screen version

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A.E.W. Mason's century-old novel The Four Feathers may not be an instantly recognizable work of literature like, say, Great Expectations or Sense and Sensibility, but it's never been too far removed from the minds of moviemakers searching for their next cinematic endeavor. This venerable tale has been brought to the screen on seven separate occasions: I've never seen the three silent versions (do prints even exist anymore?) or the 1955 knockoff titled Storm Over the Nile, but I've enjoyed the definitive 1939 rendition as well as an impressive 1977 TV-movie starring Beau Bridges and Jane Seymour.The 21st century model, also called The Four Feathers, is a satisfactory (if shaky) heir to the throne, a visually robust retelling that reinstates a dash of the epic to the big screen. The early comparisons to Lawrence of Arabia are, of course, absurd (both films feature lots of sand; so what? So does Beach Blanket Bingo): This Feathers is never as psychologically engrossing as Lawrence, and director Shekhar Kapur can't move between scenes of extreme intimacy and rousing grandiosity as effortlessly as David Lean (this new film starts and stops as often as a child's wind-up bunny). In fact, Feathers can't even aspire to the level of more recent studies in epic elegance like The English Patient, let alone a 60s classic that served as a divine guiding light to no less than Steven Spielberg and many of his filmmaking brethren. At the same time, the central story remains so compelling that the only foreseeable way to totally botch it would be to cast Tom Green and Tom Arnold in the leading roles and have the dialogue recited in Pig Latin (and even then, the production values would probably still be noteworthy).

Unfolding during the late 19th century, the tale finds Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger) seemingly on top of the world. A promising young soldier in Her Majesty's army, Harry is surrounded by adoring buddies, including his best friend Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley), and is set to marry the charming Ethne (Kate Hudson). But when his regiment is suddenly called for active duty in the Sudan, Harry balks. Having joined the army only because it was expected of him, Harry has no desire to go off and fight -- and possibly die -- in a foreign land. Instead, he resigns from the military and is instantly sent four feathers (marks of cowardice), three from his friends (but not Jack) and, unexpectedly, one from Ethne.

Tortured by his decision, and worried by reports of raging battles in the Sudan, Harry musters up all his courage and sets out to North Africa on his own, determined to aid his former comrades in their hour of need. Naturally, it's a perilous journey, and even after disguising himself as an Arab, he finds his life in constant peril, with only a taciturn warrior (Amistad's Djimon Hounsou) willing to offer him aid and protection. His journey places him in the middle of a large-scale battle as well as deep into the bowels of a gruesome prison, and yet through it all, Harry remains determined to redeem himself in the eyes of his friends.

Mason's novel and the earlier screen versions were largely celebrations of honor and heroism, of that stiff British upper lip turning into a sneer at those who would trifle with the almighty Empire. Kapur, on the other hand, isn't having any of that. A filmmaker from India (a country with its own history of tangling with the British), Kapur had his first English-language hit with 1998's Elizabeth, a period romp that, with its emphasis on sexual trysts and grasping power plays, often unfolded like an episode of TV's Dallas decked out in corsets and crowns. Elizabeth was sympathetic yet also unsentimental toward its players, and Kapur, working with screenwriters Michael Schiffer (Crimson Tide) and Hossein Amini (Wings of the Dove), takes that same approach here. Kapur clearly respects his young soldiers even if he doesn't support their cause, and it's not difficult to see that his contempt for British colonialism and that country's efforts to oversee the world can easily be applied to our own nation's global strutting under the dictatorship of George W. Bush (Kapur has even hinted as much in various interviews). The director's political agenda might seem to be at odds with the basic foundation of the tale, and yet, as with most war movies that are careful to separate the soldier from the situation, it's a dichotomy that never distracts.

Kapur handled the confines of Elizabeth's castle-bound set pieces well, so it's surprising to note that his best work in The Four Feathers can be spotted in the exterior scenes. In the more intimate, indoor moments taking place in England, there's a sense of awkwardness that renders many of these sequences ineffectual (much of this might be credited to one of the three leads, but more on that in a moment). But in the African-set scenes, Kapur comes alive, working with ace cinematographer Robert Richardson (JFK) to conjure up some piercing images (love those rolling sand dunes) and stage some highly effective battle sequences.

The story's three central characters are all British, so naturally the parts here are all played by non-Brits -- in two out of three instances, it wasn't a bad call. Australian up-and-comer Heath Ledger (A Knight's Tale) continues to build on his reputation as that most sensitive of young actors (on-screen, anyhow), and while it's not always clear whether it's mainly fear or a sense of morality that's fueling his character's anti-war stance (more the scripters' fault than the actor's), he nevertheless allows us to empathize with Harry's ceaseless torment. Yankee Wes Bentley cuts a dashing figure as the heroic Jack Durrance, and it's hard to reconcile this character with the disturbed video junkie he played in American Beauty -- it's an impressive about-face on Bentley's part. Only American Kate Hudson proves to be woefully miscast; already overhyped by the P.R. machine, the Oscar-nominated Almost Famous actress (and daughter of the infinitely more vibrant Goldie Hawn) continues to seem about as luminous as a 20-watt bulb after 999 hours of service. As portrayed by Hudson, Ethne proves to be no more personable or passionate than a guppy -- if she's supposed to represent the finest that the Empire had to offer, then it's no wonder Britannia's rule eventually slipped away.

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