Succulently shot on the actual Greek locations, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” strikes too many false notes on the dramatic side to add up to a satisfying emotional experience. As the Italian officer of the title who plucks a Greek girl’s heartstrings during WWII, Nicolas Cage never really convinces, despite game playing by Penelope Cruz as his vis-a-vis and some fine supporting performances. Notwithstanding this central weakness and a failure to distill the sheer richness of Louis de Bernieres’ bestselling novel to the bigscreen, pic still boasts enough physical values to play a pleasant enough tune with general auds looking for an uncomplicated two hours in the cinema. However, this Working Title production will fall way short of returns enjoyed by company’s other cult-book-to-pic, “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” It world-preems May 4 in the U.K. and is set for an August release Stateside through Universal.
The 1994 novel by former British schoolteacher De Bernieres enjoys an almost iconic status in the U.K., where it reportedly has sold 1.5 million copies.
However, the sheer scope of its narrative (stretching from 1940 to 1993), its rambling construction and its immensely detailed depiction of Greek life and history present almost insuperable problems for any screen adaptation. (Corelli, a rather indistinct figure, only appears a third of the way into the novel, which is emotionally centered on the Greek girl, Pelagia.)
Much as in “Bridget Jones,” which is equally unfilmable in its book form, the decision was wisely made to flatten out the novel into a more regular wartime romance between a local and a representative of the occupying forces.
However, the script by Shawn Slovo (“A World Apart”), while remaining true to the book in several incidentals, lacks a big enough vision of its own to completely replace De Bernieres’ template.
As well as featuring a final reel that can’t seem to make up its mind whether to go for an old-fashioned happy ending, several characters — from Pelagia’s mother-in-law to an Italian soldier who has an unrequited passion for Corelli — are sidelined to such an extent that they confuse matters by still being there.
Impressive opening, taken straight from the novel, promises an adaptation that will catch something of De Bernieres’ quirky, semi-ironic style, as the grizzled Dr. Iannis (John Hurt), extracts a pea from the ear of a deaf local (Gerasimos Skiadaresis) in Argostoli, on the island of Cephallonia, in 1940.
Greece is not yet a part of WWII and life on the idyllic island is carrying on as it has for centuries, with Iannis’ pretty teenage daughter, Pelagia (Penelope Cruz), enamored of a local fisherman, Mandras (Christian Bale).
With Stephen Warbeck’s bigscreen score and John Toll’s luscious widescreen lensing, there’s an impressive romantic sweep to the movie in the opening stages, as well as a sardonic tone that captures much of De Bernieres’ literary style.
When news comes that the Italian army has invaded nearby Albania, Mandras, after formally becoming Pelagia’s fiance, sets off to fight the enemy, leaving both Pelagia and his saturnine mom (veteran Irene Pappas) behind.
As time rolls on, Greece loses the war and Italian troops occupy the island while the Germans take over the mainland. In a particularly funny scene, the proud locals say they will officially surrender only to a German officer. The soldier whose job it is to translate is Capt. Antonio Corelli (Cage), who ends up lodging at Iannis’ home.
With their easygoing attitudes and love of music, the Italians soon win the liking of the Cephallonians, and life almost returns to normal. Sparks also begin to fly between Pelagia, who thinks Mandras died on the Albanian front, and Corelli, whose own love of music extends to the mandolin.
However, when Mandras secretly returns alive as a member of the guerrilla movement, and the Allied forces advance on Greece, relationships are thrown back into the broiler, especially when Italy surrenders to the Allies and the German forces, under the command of Capt. Weber (David Morrissey), are instructed to first disarm, and then dispose of, the pesky Italians.
With its multitude of characters and historical-political backgrounding, there’s enough material in the novel for an epic, three-hour movie. Early on, Slovo’s script clearly decides to go for the romance between Corelli and Pelagia, but there’s a singular lack of chemistry between the two actors to match the physical scope of the picture.
Never at his best in straight romantic roles, Cage looks stiff and uncomfortable as the Italian officer, capturing neither the character’s attractive brio nor the romantic soulfulness expressed through his mandolin playing.
In a key scene, where Corelli plays a soulful melody dedicated to Pelagia one night in a taverna, the movie momentarily nails the attraction between the two that cannot be expressed in words. But when the story’s tragic gears start to lock later on, the love story becomes just one of too many subplots jostling for attention.
Although she doesn’t really look the part, Cruz is fine within the constraints of the script; but against Cage’s low-wattage playing, she’s largely paddling upstream.
In a role he could play standing on his head, Hurt is very good as Cruz’s rambunctious but understanding father, and Morrissey also is excellent as a “good German” torn between simple humanity and orders from above; but other thesps, including Bale and Pappas, make little impression in diminished parts.
Pic’s physical look is always impressive, with lifelike, in situ sets by production designer Jim Clay and impressive action sequences late on as first Allied bombing and later an earthquake devastate the protagonists’ lives.
The fumbled final reel, however, fails to either satisfactorily resolve the central love story or recapture the pic’s opening tone as the villagers seek to re-establish traditional values.
Decision to equip everyone with slight accents gives the movie an old-fashioned feel but is acceptable in the circumstances, especially given the mixed nationalities of the thesps themselves.
Helmer John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) came on board at a late stage after skedded director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) suffered a heart attack prior to start of filming in May 2000.