The Four Feathers

2002, Movie, PG-13, 125 mins


This new adaptation of A.E.W. Mason's 1902 adventure novel isn't as good as the 1939 version but has its revisionist virtues. Many of the late Victorian era's prejudices — colonialism good, dark-skinned people not-so-good — were second nature to Mason, and Shekhar Kapur (in conjunction with co-scripters Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini) takes those implicit attitudes and moves them front and center, where they belong. The question is whether a contemporary audience will find the heroes' occasionally blatant racism fundamentally off-putting or merely historically accurate. England, 1875. Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger) has a promising future as a British Army officer, a beautiful bride-to-be, Ethne (Kate Hudson), and close friends in three fellow officers, Durrance (Wes Bentley), Trench (Michael Sheen) and Willoughby (Rupert Penry-Jones). Then Harry's regiment is abruptly summoned to active duty in the Sudan and, for various reasons, he decides he wants none of it and resigns his commission. Ethne, Trench, Durrance and Willoughby regard this as an act of betrayal and send Feversham a box containing four white feathers, symbols of cowardice and shame. Distraught and disowned by his father (Tim Pigott-Smith), Harry eventually learns that his former regimental colleagues are under brutal attack by Sudanese rebels. He goes to the Sudan alone, is saved from death in the desert by Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou) and disguises himself as an Arab so he can go behind enemy lines and rescue his friends. Be warned: Some of the film's central characters tender the word "wog" with abandon, and one scene features a high-ranking cleric whose exhortations to slay the heathens are delivered with such unabashed bloodlust that he resembles a rabid, right-wing TV pundit in a miter. That said, Kapur's large-scale battle sequences are a satisfying mix of the harrowing and the thrilling, and the prison scenes are genuinely horrific. Overall the acting is wonderful; though Ledger has seemed slightly callow in earlier roles, he conveys both gravitas and his character's anguished ambiguity. But the film's center will not hold. Either crucial scenes were cut (perhaps for length) or Kapur has a problematic sense of narrative structure; sometimes it's unclear who's doing what to whom. And while Hudson, an American, looks adorable in period clothes and gives the role of consummately English Ethne the old Oxford try, there are doubtless hundreds of British actresses who would have been more authoritative. Finally, Kapur shamelessly ends the film's climactic fight between Feversham and a sadistic warden with one of those ridiculous he-looks-dead-but-he's-not moments. It's totally out of place and totally unbelievable. leave a comment --Steve Simels

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