Miramax Films and Paramount Pictures have been marketing "The Four Feathers," director Shekhar Kapur's inauspicious follow-up to 1998's Oscar-nominated "Elizabeth," as a sweeping historical war epic "that takes you across two continents." What the ads dare not say is that the film itself plays like a chintzy, Cliffs Notes version of a wannabe epic and, save for the sumptuous overhead shots of the desert landscape already seen in the trailer, the cinematography (by Robert Richardson) is flat and thoroughly forgettable work.
The cut-rate look of the picture is far from the only thing "The Four Feathers" is lacking. The young, acclaimed ensemble, while delivering adequately workmanlike turns, seem to have been cast based on their box-office draw rather than their being the best choices for the roles. Heath Ledger (2001's "A Knight's Tale
") and Wes Bentley (1999's "American Beauty
") are especially bland. The story, based on a novel by A.E.W. Mason, despite being worthy enough to have been adapted to film multiple times before, lacks even rudimentary passion or urgency under the helm of director Kapur. I was not as big of a fan of Kapur's "Elizabeth" as some were, but this still marks a major step down for him.
Set in 1884 during the British Empire uprising, Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger) and Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley) are best friends and fellow lieutenants of the British army. Harry is engaged to Ethne Eustace (Kate Hudson), a passionate woman whom Jack also silently longs for from afar. When word comes that Harry and Jack's regiment will be sent to Sudan to protect the Empire's interest, Harry abruptly resigns his commission. Harry, who only joined the army to please his demanding father, is not prepared to sacrifice his life and his love with Ethne for something he didn't want to do in the first place. The result of his resignation, however, is the arrival of three white feathers from his comrades, each signifying cowardice. When Ethne sends him a fourth feather and his father refuses to speak to him any longer, a shunned Harry leaves for Sudan by himself, posing as an Arab in a last-ditch attempt to look out for Jack and reclaim his lost dignity.
At 125 long minutes, "The Four Feathers" moves at an interminably sluggish pace. Had there been any characters to grow attached to, this might not have been the case. As is, the only question the film leaves you with is why you should care about anything that is taking place on the screen. The middle 80 minutes, set in the Sudan desert, are deadeningly dull beyond belief, and the major battle sequencemeant to be the picture's leading action showcaseis poorly edited together and elicits nothing more than a yawn.
The bookending sequences set back home in Britain are its best, mostly due to the welcome appearance of Kate Hudson (2000's "Almost Famous
"), the sole bright spot in an otherwise dreary slog of a movie. Hudson's Ethne is the only central figure who has a believable character arc, as she immediately regrets her decision to send Harry a white feather and recognizes how shallow the gesture really was. Meanwhile, Harry's decision to go to Sudan after he firmly states his reasons for not going with his regiment goes against everything his character has believed in up to that point, making the story development a purely nonsensical one and the main protagonist a hypocrite.
"The Four Feathers" represents a cut-and-paste example of how not to make a historical drama. With little palpable emotion except of the hackneyed variety, an abandonment of human or story depth, no visual flair, and even less visceral charge than what was seen in this week's awful "Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever
," this latest "The Four Feathers" is far from a high watermark in the annals of the classic novel. In fact, it comes exceptionally close to simply drowning.
©2002 by Dustin Putman