“The Four Feathers” is a dull rendition of the old warhorse about honor lost and redeemed in Africa during Britain’s high colonial days. Indian helmer Shekhar Kapur’s follow-up to his 1998 Oscar nominee “Elizabeth” falls far short of that juicy historical drama, failing to give the characters more than one dimension or to posit a plausible raison d’etre for reworking a tired story. Three of this-year’s-model young stars in stiffly inexpressive per-formances won’t do much to attract large audiences, and without strong reviews, this Paramount/Miramax co-venture doesn’t look to last long in the shifting sands of box office fortune, at least domestically. Overseas returns should be better.
A.E.W. Mason’s popular novel, written when the Empire was still in full blossom, has been filmed several times, first in 1915, again in 1929 by adventurer-filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and most famously in 1939 on location and in brilliant Technicolor by Zoltan Korda.
Partly due to the imminence of war at England’s doorstep, latter version was drenched in the sort of patriotic God, King and Country sentiments that seem quaint today at best. Political realities being what they are, any story about a mighty Western army taking on a Third World force, particularly an explicitly Muslim one such as is the case here, has to be thought through carefully, even as it offers the possibility of an interesting new interpretation.
But while downplaying the jingoistic stuff and offering tepid moments of doubt as to the value of Britain’s colonial enterprise and the bloodshed involved, this new take, penned by Michael Schiffer (“Colors”) and Hossein Amini (“The Wings of the Dove”) doesn’t offer an intriguing point of view on the East/West conflict, despite the fact the unseen foe bedeviling the British, the Mahdi, is the same Muslim fundamentalist who bested Gen. Gordon at Khartoum.
Set in 1884, a year before Gordon’s fall, yarn centers on a class of young officers, the Royal Cumbrians, who immediately upon graduation are to be sent off to the Sudan to reinforce British forces besieged there by “Mohammadan fanatics.”
Due to be married to prim little sweetie Ethne (Kate Hudson), Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger), experiences such qualms about shipping out that he does the unthinkable for a general’s son and resigns his commission. For this act, he receives three white feathers, symbolizing his cowardice, from his three best friends in the regiment, and soon receives a fourth from his estranged fiancee.
This exposition takes a dreary half-hour to be set up, so it is no small relief when the action switches to the African desert, where at least the bleached-out (Moroccan) locations, Robert Richardson’s desaturated lensing (in which only the Brits’ red jackets stand out with color) and Allan Cameron’s sand-covered production design can come into full play.
Unfortunately, less attention is paid to the narrative line, which remains choppy and unclear. Just when it appears some momentum will be built by the regiment’s approach on Korti — an English fort be-lieved to be under attack by the Mahdi’s men — Harry’s closest friend, Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley), is sent back to raise support for Gordon in London, where he also hopes to establish himself as an alternative to Harry in Ethne’s heart.
Harry, meantime, is, himself, in the Su-dan trying to pass as an Arab but not doing a great job of it. Aiding him in his journey toward redemption is a mysteriously motivated black man, Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou), who repeatedly gets Harry out of jams but is punished for his efforts to warn the British that Korti has been captured by the natives.
Pic’s major battle scene, in which African warriors storm the regiment from all sides in staggered waves, features some striking moments, although it is not staged with an excess of logistical clarity or coherence.
Thereafter, the blinded Jack returns to England for some deadly scenes with Ethne, while Harry is imprisoned, beaten to a fare-thee-well on repeated occasions and left for dead, only to rise once more to triumph over his tormentors.
Both the heroics and the self-doubt are empty exercises here; without the clear-cut convictions of Empire to drive them, the British seem to be wasting their time, and there is no character to represent the Muslim side. And as such colonial-era derring-do has been seen countless times before, something other than pure action has to be provided in order to somehow involve the viewer.
But there is no one to become attached to in “The Four Feathers,” no interest or sympathies appealed to or engaged. Performances are uniformly undistinguished, with Ledger appearing rugged and long-suffering but nothing more, Hudson looking and sounding artificial, and Bentley seemingly made by Geppetto.