Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:05 - Released 9/20/02

The Four Feathers is only the seventh feature film based on A.E.W. Mason's 1902 novel by the same name. It is a richly produced, high-budget epic; unfortunately, it's populated by pretty-faced twentysomethings (Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Kate Hudson) whose best understanding of the period comes from what is told to them by their costume designer. While these actors resolutely try to live up to the "seriousness" of their roles, there is something, a demeanor, a presence, which is lacking, as is seen all too often in historical dramas. While this film is no doubt technically beautiful, thanks in no small part to the work of Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (JFK), director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) has gone to such length to ensure sweeping vistas, helicopter shots of desert warfare, and richly detailed set design, he's neglected to tell his actors to do a little research and stop behaving like 21st century teens.

Moreover, the screenplay by Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini must have excised much of Mason's original text, because I'll be darned if I can see anything worthy of writing a novel about, let alone seven film adaptations. The plot is reduced to a flimsy story about a British soldier who, when called into action, chickens out and then regrets it, spending the rest of the story trying to win back his honor and his girl. It seems an exercise in futility and a primer on unrealistic story elements, diving headlong from one unlikely sequence into another. Mason, who produced over 25 novels and other works in addition to his Inspector Hannaud series between the late 19th century and his death in 1948, must have produced fiction much more engaging, much more important, than what this film turned out to be.

The story begins in 1884 at an elite officer's training school in what was then the proudest and most powerful nation on Earth, the British Empire. Lt. Harry Faversham (Ledger) enjoys not only the respect of his best friend, Lt. Jack Durrance (Bentley), and the affections of the beautiful Ethne Eustace (Hudson), with whom he's about to be married, but that of all his fellow soldiers. But when the order is given to move out and join the war in the Sudan, Harry gets cold feet. Admitting that he never really wanted to be a solder but only joined the academy to please his disapproving veteran father, he resigns his commission and leaves the academy. But the reaction among his friends is, for some reason, not what he expected—he receives a package containing three white feathers symbolizing cowardice, and Ethne herself adds the fourth, dumping him for Jack, who has always had a thing for her. Immediately after his friends leave for Africa, Harry follows (assuming the guise of an Arab by growing out his hair and beard), and risks his life to infiltrate their camp so he can "help." Also, inexplicably, he convinces a local stranger to join him, an African named Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou, Amistad), who regularly faces death to get Harry out of various jams because, as he puts it, "God put you in my way."

This film is an epic treatment of an anemic story, with much energy devoted to period trappings and very little to substance. It's dazzlingly accoutered, but it drags and meanders, like a glittering royal entourage lost in the desert. Ledger occasionally reaches some emotional depth, but he and his fellow non-Brits are uncomfortable with their accents. Hounsou plays his part well, but one wonders why his character would become so involved in the life of a stranger who is basically an annoyance to him. There are period dramas with emotional impact, and then there are expensive dress-up shows. This one, I'm afraid, falls squarely into the latter category. ***½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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