“In Love And War” stands as a pallid telling of the fleeting but indelible romance between Ernest Hemingway and his nurse in Italy during World War I. Richard Attenborough’s sixth biographical drama goes through the motions of spinning a passionate love story set against a grand historical background, but doesn’t get under the skin of its protagonists, leaving the viewer unmoved and passably interested at best. Drawing power of stars Sandra Bullock and Chris O’Donnell rep the pic’s only chance of pulling down even decent B.O. numbers.
The 19-year-old Hemingway’s affair of the heart with his 26-year-old nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, was the pivotal amorous event of his early life, one which helped dash his innocence and idealism but which also provided him with the heroine of one of his greatest literary successes, “A Farewell To Arms.”
For her part, Kurowsky remained unknown until after Hemingway’s death, and the full extent of her relationship with the future novelist only became known with the publication of “Hemingway in Love and War,” the book prompted by the discovery of her private diary and letters and the basis for the present screenplay.
Convincingly portraying the prevailing moral rectitude and sexual constraints of Americans in earlier times has posed a problem for numerous modern period films, and plays a part in the difficulties here in that the repression places primary focus squarely on turbulent emotions that are largely required to be kept contained.
Unfortunately, the story’s surface values are just about all that emerge in this tale of “Ernie” (O’Donnell), an enthusiastic volunteer ambulance driver who pays for a risky trip to the front in the summer of 1918 with a leg full of lead.
His Red Cross nurse, Agnes (Bullock), goes out of her way to dissuade the Italian surgeon, Dr. Domenico Caracciolo (Emilio Bonucci), from amputating; the infatuated young American spends a good deal of his subsequent convalescence trying to win the favor of his attractive attendant. She is not only professionally restricted from becoming involved with a patient, but is understandably reluctant to take up with a green teenager, whom she deliberately calls “Kid,” no matter how charming and attentive.
Agnes is also pursued by Ernie’s good-looking friend Harry Villard (based on the source book’s co-author and the late father of producer Dimitri) and Dr. Caracciolo, a handsome older man who treats Agnes in courtly, old-world fashion.
After keeping everyone at arm’s length, Agnes finally admits to her deep feelings for the Kid and spends one night with him before his departure back to the States, where his announcement that he intends to marry his beloved upon her return is shortly undercut by a devastating missive from Agnes.
Basic approach by screenwriters Allan Scott, Clancy Sigal and Anna Hamilton Phelan is biographically respectful and not unintelligent. But neither the script nor Attenborough’s stately direction manage to take the careful, restrained romance to the emotional depths desirable in a sweeping bigscreen love story, and Bullock and O’Donnell seemingly lack the range and nuance to take this journey into uncharted dramatic territory.
Onscreen for much of the running time, Bullock has no trouble holding viewer interest with her delineation of Agnes’ hesitations and uncertainties, but even at the end one remains somewhat unclear about the true nature of her feelings for Hemingway.
O’Donnell convincingly puts across the avid, irrepressible side of the young American anxious for a taste of love and war, but his characterization lacks the dark shadings and intimations of real insight that might have suggested the artist to come.
Supporting characters are disappointingly one-dimensional, placing further burden on the leads. Scenes of warfare, which emphasize blood and explosions, are kept to a minimum in a handsomely mounted picture visually dominated by photogenic Italian locations and crisp military and nurse uniforms.
George Fenton’s score plays into the film’s most conventionally romantic tendencies.