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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Stars: Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hounsou, Kate Hudson, Michael Sheen, Kris Marshall, Rupert Penry-Jones and Alex Jennings
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Scriptwriters: Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini
Music: James Horner
Running Time: 130 minutes
Rating: PG 13
Every reviewer has his biases. He likes certain types of movies and doesn't care for others. Of course, that's true for regular moviegoers, but the critic is expected to rise above his preconceived notions and judge each film on its intrinsic merits, regardless of whether it's one of his favorite genres. That's the way it should be, but it's often easier said than done. When you find a movie fundamentally boring, your objectivity about the acting, script, or cinematography is sometimes affected.
Regular readers of this column will know that I'm not a huge fan of costume dramas. True, I loved Shakespeare in Love, Topsy Turvy, and Sense and Sensibility; and I thoroughly enjoyed Golden Bowl, Washington Square, and Wings of the Dove. But for every Emma that's charming, there are five more that bore me to tears.
My problems with costume dramas are deeper than just personal bias, however. Typically (though not always), they serve to distract us from our own contemporary stories. When Miramax or some other arty studio releases a half-dozen costume dramas at Oscar time, they often overwhelm the contemporary dramas that are struggling to find the same audience. Furthermore, costume dramas tend to flatter modern spectators, convincing us that our approach to issues of class, gender, and race are so much more progressive and sophisticated than societies of the 19th century. And at their core, costume dramas are a static genre, rehashing the same tropes and scenery, rarely breaking new ground in the art of storytelling.
The same is true for inane comedies and stupid action movies, but I don't expect teenage boys to tell the difference. Costume dramas are marketed to people who should be more discerning, who should recognize the Tradition of Quality for the deceiving straitjacket that it is.
Which brings me to this week's movie, The Four Feathers. It recounts the oft-told story, based on the novel by A.E.W. Mason, in which a young Briton must overcome his cowardice to save his best friends. The stars of this production are Heath Ledger (A Knight's Tale) as the coward-turned-hero, Wes Bentley (American Beauty) as his best friend, and Kate Hudson (Almost Famous) as the charming young woman who must choose between them.
The story takes place in the late 19th century, at the apex of the British empire. Harry (Ledger), Durrance (Bentley), and Trench (Michael Sheen) are soldiers in an elite British regiment. They train by day (and play a vicious game of rugby) and enjoy fancy balls in the evening. Harry's father was a famous general, so he feels an obligation to join the army. But when he finds out his regiment is being sent to the Sudan just days after he and Ethne (Hudson) have become engaged, he takes the drastic step of leaving the army. Shocked and hurt, three of his friends and Ethne each send him a white feather, indicating their contempt for his cowardice.
Of course, Harry can't leave it at that. He takes the even more drastic step of going to the Sudan by himself, where he will work as a spy to support and watch out for his friends. There he meets Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou), an African who repeatedly saves his life and asks nothing in return. Think of Abou as the British equivalent of the Noble Savage.
The cast is solid. Djimon Hounsou was great in Amistad, and he's equally fine here. His mysterious aura probably helps, but he has a command on the screen that's palpable. Ledger doesn't have the same gravity, and he's too often shown in difficult reaction shots that don't necessarily play to his strengths. Wes Bentley is quite good, especially in the movie's final act when he aggressively tries to woo the beautiful Ethne. Kate Hudson has one the best smiles in Hollywood, so it's always a pleasure when she's on screen, but, to be honest, she doesn't have a lot to do besides smile in the first act and frown in the third.
Director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) is no stranger to costume dramas. He knows how to stage a ballroom dance, how to shoot a beautiful British estate, and how to capitalize on the famous British reserve, particularly in matters of the heart. Fans of the genre will find all of the familiar elements on display. I have to give him and screenwriters Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini credit for including a grueling African prison sequence that seems to last a couple hours, though ten minutes is probably closer. But otherwise, this is fairly typical stuff. The great cinematographer Robert Richardson has clearly watched Lawrence of Arabia a few times, as his desert sequences are fantastic, particularly a rousing battle between the British and their faceless opponents. Unfortunately, the scenes back in Britain seem strangely inert. And ubiquitous composer James Horner offers a syrupy and intrusive score.
If all of this sounds like your cup of tea, then I urge you to grab your nine dollars and head out this Friday to support Hollywood's version of the tv crime drama (familiar, predictable, and tidy). But as you do, ask yourself why we're more frequently offered dramas focusing on the dilemmas of 19th-century Britons instead of 21st-century Chicagoans. There are no easy answers, but the question's worth asking.
J. Robert Parks 9/16/2002
What makes the story in A. E. W. Mason's novel The Four Feathers so popular? It has been remade almost as many times as Robin Hood. There are 1921 and 1928 versions, one called Storm Over the Nile and another one made in 1978 for television with Beau Bridges It is about being called a coward and showing courage under fire. The hero has to prove himself to his friends, his fiancée and, not the least, to his own personal satisfaction.
This time, Four Feathers has Heath Ledger (A Knight's Tale) as Henry Faversham, the so-called coward. His fiancée is Ethne (Kate Hudson from Almost Famous) and his close friends are Jack (Wes Bentley from American Beauty), Trench (Michael Sheen from Mary Reilly), Castleton (Kris Marshall), Willoughby (Rupert Penry-Jones) and, in the Sudan, Abou (Djimon Hounsou from Gladiator.) It is a man's film. Sorry, Kate, but they go off to war and leave you in England.
The story centers near the end of the 19th century on young British military officers. Life is full of imaginary battle campaigns and young girls for dancing. However, Great Britain, at the height of world power, has a war going on in the Sudan, and whether the Sudanese like it or not, Britain keeps sending troops there to civilize everyone. Soon, Henry and his friends are called up, but Henry has reservations about going and resigns his commission. The friends, plus his fiance, send Henry white feathers, to indicate cowardice. Henry must decide whether to stay in disgrace or do something about it. He decides to travel incognito to the Sudan and disguise himself as a native in order to act as a sort of guardian angel to his friends. What is disconcerting to the audience is that when Ledger grows a beard and dresses in native clothes, he looks like the American Taliban.
There is a great deal to this story and what certainly goes against it is the abrupt editing. One minute a character is in the middle of the desert and the next second is back in England. Timeline this is not. On the plus side is the magnificent scenery (filmed in Morocco and England), sets, costumes (the British wear red uniforms even in the desert) and photography. Two overhead shots are effective. The first is of the young officers and their dates at a ball before war enters their lives and the other is of a crowded prison where there is no room for anyone to lie down. We also get views of both sides of the conflict praying to God to help them win, and the desert battle which looks for all the world like Custer's last stand. You want to cringe, slide down into your theater seat and hang on for dear life.
What makes the film linger in one's mind; at least longer than Road Trip, is Heath Ledger's portrayal of Henry. He not only gives "intense" new meaning but his very survival is often in doubt. There will always be a hint of Goldie Hawn's smile in Hudson and it is charming. Hounsou is the friend one would always want to have on hand. Wes Bentley is the rival for the affections of Ethne and Bentley's facial muscles must do all the acting for him when he is severely wounded in the Sudan. The acting potential for years to come is clear when he and Ledger are together. The rest of the cast ranges from always-right military officers to the frightened to the brave to those who die under fire. Make-up was busy on "Four Feathers."
There are no rights or wrongs here. People die on either side whether from accident, illness or military action. To his credit, director Shekhar Kapur has made a miniature combination of Lawrence of Arabia and _Khartoum with the exception of the editing problem. Methinks what was on the cutting room floor would make another film in itself. When you look deep within yourself, what do you see? Is it the conviction of Bentley's character that wars must be fought or the doubt in Henry that war may not be the answer? In our times, the white feather has been replaced by the yellow stripe, but these fundamental questions remain.
Copyright 2002 Marie Asner