The latest version of The Four Feathers romance is fatuous fluff
There have been at least five previous film versions of the Victorian war romance The Four Feathers, so there’s no doubting that A. E. W. Mason’s novel has proven durable material for the movies. But it’s still hard to figure just why Shekhar Kapur and Paramount Pictures felt that the 21st century needed a version of its own.
Swashbuckling adventure and large-scale battle scenes in the African desert are sure-fire material for the big screen, but this is a story steeped in the arrogance, racism, and soldierly valor of the British Empire and in the heyday of Queen Victoria, and it uses a bloody little colonial skirmish in the Sudan as the grand backdrop for a maudlin romantic triangle.
Worse yet, its central character is a young lieutenant (Heath Ledger) who has resigned his commission on the eve of a mission against a fanatic tyrant in a Muslim region of Africa and has been branded a coward (one symbolic white feather each, from the three closest of his comrades-in-arms and his flabbergasted fiancé, who is played by Kate Hudson). His solution: to disguise himself as an Arab and sneak into the Sudan and redeem himself by coming to the aid of his besieged comrades.
The story of Harry Faversham (Ledger) in this version is utterly lacking in emotional conviction. For all of the pomp and circumstance and the grand gestures, the movie never gives us a solid reason for caring about wavering between fear and courage. His cowardice is a mere plot convenience, so that we can have the spectacle of his heroic rescue efforts and his wallowing in every form of suffering the situation can provide.
The military games and ceremonies and the courtship stuff early on have all the fatuousness of callow actors playing dress-up in a high school play. Any scene with Kate Hudson feels fake through and through, but no one was laughing in the large audience with which I watched the film—the Brits’ eagerness to go to war and their lordly contempt for the “heathens” and “fanatics” seemed to shock the audience into a deathly silence for most of the film.
Shekhar and company are politically correct enough to critique British arrogance and racism and to play up a couple of sympathetic Sudanese characters (the Egyptians are another matter), but this post-colonial tweaking still takes a back seat to Victorian-style earnestness and valor and a lyrical nostalgia for a picturesque myth of British gallantry and swagger.
Ledger grunts, moans and cries like a Method actor trying to remake Errol Flynn in the image of Marlon Brando. But that’s small potatoes compared to the absurdities of a story in which, for example, the hero rides into battle with the enemy, finds his way directly to his friends in the middle of a hugely chaotic melee, and just happens to have time to read a love letter that has fallen out of the pocket of Jack (Wes Bentley), his rival for the hand of Ethne (Hudson).