How far the great have fallen. Director John Madden has gone from making the 1998 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, "Shakespeare in Love," to what is easily one of the worst films of 2001. "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," based on the acclaimed novel by Louis de Bernieres, wears its false sentiment on its sleeve and its heart in its throat. A romance without passion, urgency, depth, or even a slight modicum of believability, the movie moves at a snail's pace to tell a story so misdirected and calamitously written, by Tim Bevan, that it holds neither an ounce of interest or involvement.
Set on the Greek Island of Cephalonia at the start of World War II, circa 1940, Pelagia (Penelope Cruz), the beautiful daughter of the town's doctor, Dr. Iannis (John Hurt), begins a courtship with Mandras (Christian Bale). When he goes off to war, and she continuously writes him without hearing a single reply, she fears the worst. Meanwhile, Cephalonia is overrun by the Italians, and Pelagia and Dr. Iannis find themselves sharing a home with the Captain assigned to stay with them, Antonio Corelli (Nicolas Cage). Corelli, a noble man who flawlessly plays the mandolin and loves the opera, is instantly attracted to Pelagia, even after Mandras returns from abroad. At first turned off by Corelli's positive outlook on everything, Pelagia soon gives into temptation and begins an affair with him, just as the strife between former allies Italy and Germany heightens, leaving Cephalonia under siege.
What is so surprising by the failure to translate "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" from page to screen, given the talent on both sides of the camera, is that not one element works. As a realistic look at the problems that accumulated between Germany and Italy during World War II, the whole affair is a strictly cut-and-paste job, with nary a hint of insight into the subject matter.
Likewise, the deep love that blossoms between Pelagia and Corelli is thoroughly unconvincing and off-putting. For the first half of the picture, Pelagia more or less finds Corelli despicable, only to, without any warning, take a 180-degree turn and make longing looks at him. When the would-be pivotal moment arises in which they profess their love for one another, it is laughable rather than romantic or touching, because the movie has not earned the right to make their relationship a plausible one.
The actors have turned in strong performances in the past, and will undoubtedly be good again, but you would never know it going solely by this film. Nicolas Cage (2000's "The Family Man"), Italian accent in tow but not a particularly passable one, is uncharismatic as dreamboat Antonio Corelli. His role is an underwritten one that almost feels like background shading. The central part goes to Penelope Cruz (2001's "Blow"), who has quickly made a name for herself on this side of the Atlantic by popping up in one American film after the next in the last year. Cruz clearly has put a sizable amount of effort in making Pelagia a sympathetic character, but she apparently has decided to screw her required Greek accent and go with her normal, occasionally incomprehensible Spanish one. Lending little support, Christian Bale, so arresting in 2000's "American Psycho," is a bore as the distant Mandras, and John Hurt is no more diverting as Pelagia's caring father.
If not for the gorgeous scenery of Cephalonia that cinematographer John Toll (1998's "The Thin Red Line") has to offer, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" would have been an ugly, awful motion picture. As is, it is a pretty, awful (or "pretty awful," depending on your outlook) motion picture. "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" is officially bankrupt of any signs of life or character chemistry. On second thought, maybe Antonio Corelli and Pelagia Iannis do deserve each other. After all, they're both boring.
©2001 by Dustin Putman