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The Empire Strikes Out 

The 1901 novel The Four Feathers has been adapted for film at least a half a dozen times; anything that's had that much work done should probably just stay under wraps. Any shot at perfection passed long ago, and plain old presentability is rapidly becoming an issue.

Still, set as it is across the British Empire of the late 1870s, The Four Feathers begs for the big-screen treatment. One almost can't fault so many for trying, least of all director Shekhar Kapur. For starters, the last incarnation of the desert drama was a 1977 made-for-TV starring Beau Bridges and Jane Seymour, and what self-proclaimed movie lover wouldn't want to obliterate that little piece of cinema history? Additionally, Kapur, a Bollywood import, dazzled international audiences with his deft, luxuriant Elizabeth. If he could do that for the Virgin Queen, why not let him make (or remake) whatever he pleased? Because great promise does not insure great product, and The Four Feathers is living proof.

The Four Feathers is the tale, mostly, of Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger), the son of a son of a stiff upper lip, who decides the soldier's life is simply not for him. The fact that he decides this on the eve of his deployment to contested northern Africa is not highly thought of by anyone he knows. His fellow military men (most notably Wes Bentley as best friend and rival Jack and Michael Sheen as comrade Trench) and his fiancee Ethne (Kate Hudson) are quite gung-ho about protecting the far-flung interests of merry old England. A group of them give Harry the ultimate heave-ho: four white feathers representing his cowardice in the face of his country's call. People start to whisper, his father cuts him off, and a quest for redemption begins.

His seemingly momentary doubts about the legitimacy of British imperialism put into a different perspective, shame and ostracism do what no commanding officer could; Harry travels to the one place on earth he seemed hell-bent to avoid. He shadows the movements of his former friends and their troops and waits for a chance to play good Samaritan. Crossing the desert alone, our feather friend meets African warrior Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou), and -- at great personal cost -- does what he can to save the friends he has lost. Said friends, of course, repay his anonymous efforts with astonishing thick-headedness and, on Jack's part, self-serving romantic treachery as he shamelessly courts Ethne in Harry's absence.

All of which makes The Four Feathers sound much more interesting than it actually is. Kapur's best efforts -- and those of a generally talented cast -- are stymied again and again by a fits-and-starts script and a surprisingly flat, lifeless cinematography. Academy Award-winner Robert Richardson (JFK) succeeds in providing only the most occasional of moments; his desert is never alive.

The Four Feathers has been called, by its own marketing machine, an epic on par with The English Patient. They wish. The English Patient believed at its core that the heart is an organ of fire, and not a chance slipped by for that message to be writ large across the sub-Saharan. The desert, untamable and unpredictable, became a map of human geography. Director Anthony Minghella was blessed with a community of extraordinary characters with which to play; the thinly drawn creatures of Four Feathers screenwriters Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini do not an epic make, no matter how sandy their environment.

The key to filming in the desert is intimacy, and stick figures can't achieve that. What would David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia or Bernardo Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky be without that ineffable human tangibility that makes the desert an ontological oasis? Ledger, still coming into his own as a leading man, struggles to imbue his Harry with fire and sentience. He does an admirable job; if there is any reason to care about this movie, it is the immediacy of his performance (and, perhaps for some, his lickable good looks).

One would imagine the great passion of the film would be between Ledger and leading lady Hudson, but Hudson's performance is vapid. Her wide-eyed, lifeless Ethne, with as questionable an English accent as an American actress ever perpetuated, is no inspiration. The truest chemistry, rather, is between Ledger and Hounsou, both of whom wrestle their way through stunted dialogue to become a memorably under-realized screen duo. In the end, it's easy to see what The Four Feathers could have been and hard to understand what went wrong.

At the end of the day, the movie has an improbably "happy" ending, less than true to the possibilities in Harry's character and more than a little jarring. Of course, by that point, few will care any more because we've lost our honest Harry to mindless melodrama. The Four Feathers would like us to believe it is about a boy becoming a man; sadly, it's just a mirage.

click to enlarge The Sand Man: An emotional performance by Heath Ledger is worth seeing, but isn't enough to keep The Four Feathers floating.
  • The Sand Man: An emotional performance by Heath Ledger is worth seeing, but isn't enough to keep The Four Feathers floating.


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