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Posts Tagged ‘The Four Feathers’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published in December 2003:

It’s a terrible thing to have to say, but sometimes a film can be too thoughtful for its own good. The movie I’m particularly thinking of at the moment is Shekhar Kapur’s The Four Feathers, a new adaptation of A E W Mason’s much-filmed novel about loyalty, redemption, and swashbuckling heroics in 1880s Africa.

Well, I say ‘new’, but this is a film that originally came out in the US in 2002, where it promptly tanked. Clearly despairing of it, the distributors plonked it on the shelf for a year before giving it a distinctly low-key release on this side of the pond. It’s now, at the time of writing, making occasional appearances on the UK art-house circuit, which is where I caught it.

It’s the story of young British army officers Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger) and Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley) and their eminently nubile friend Ethne (Kate Hudson), who are all having a ripping time in England in 1884. Yes, they are all American or Australian, but never mind about that. Harry and Ethne get engaged, but following close upon their happy news come some grim tidings – Moslem extremists led by the Mahdi are causing all kinds of mayhem in the Sudan, and Jack and Harry’s regiment is being sent off to sort them out. The prospect of fighting the Mahdi makes Harry a bit mardy, and he suddenly realises he doesn’t want to be a soldier after all. His resignation results in him getting sent white feathers (the symbol of cowardice) by all his friends bar Jack, and what’s more Ethne chucks him too. But after the regiment’s gone, Harry decides he perhaps would like to do his bit after all, and gets on the next boat to Port Said in search of redemption…

This is a lavish, magnificently-photographed movie, with a huge scope. In fact, it’s possibly the most expensive art-house movie ever made, because it certainly isn’t the classy blockbuster the producers were probably hoping for. I can imagine the first screening, and the looks of bemusement and despair on the faces of studio brass as they slowly realise they’ve spent $80 million on a film which is too slow and thoughtful for mass consumption, but too hokey and dim for critical acceptance.

How can a film be simultaneously thoughtful and dim? Aha, my friends, it all boils down to the choice of director. Coming from an Asian background himself, Kapur doesn’t adopt the ‘British Empire, stiff upper lips, huzzah for us!’ approach to the characters that previous versions went for. Instead he’s much more critical of the imperialist mindset, and it doesn’t take Marshall McLuhan to work out that a story about a global superpower’s reckless foreign adventurism is just begging for a metaphorical interpretation (something else that probably didn’t help the film’s US box office). Most of the British characters are arrogant and racist, while Faversham’s native sidekick Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou, who’s rapidly becoming the poor man’s Morgan Freeman) is less his faithful servant than a noble source of wisdom and insight.

While the film has some of the most stunning cinematography I’ve seen in recent years, it’s also filmed in an unexpectedly dour and naturalistic way, lacking the gloss of more conventional action movies. It’s rather overlong, too, with a distinct sag in the final third. And, to be honest, the story itself rebels against Kapur’s reinterpretation of it – this was never meant to be a critique of colonialism or an examination of social controls in the class system. It’s supposed to be about some stand-up chaps who go off to dark-ish Africa and jolly well hit the Mahdi’s thugs for six. But the swashbuckling and derring-do never quite take flight (although there’s a very impressive battle partway through) and the redcoats and pith helmets of the British soldiers (not to mention the presence of Angela Douglas in the supporting cast) do summon up memories of Carry On Up The Khyber, absolutely the last thing this film needs.

To be fair to them, the leads do their best with their roles. Ledger does his ‘troubled’ face a lot (here’s a man crying out for the chance to play the lead in a romantic comedy), Bentley is actually quite good, especially as he has the potentially very dodgy task of playing someone who goes blind in the course of the film, and Kate Hudson… Ah, yes, well, Kate Hudson has terrible trouble with wandering accent syndrome. For most of the film, she sounds as if she comes from somewhere on the border between Bermondsey and Reykjavik. Either that or her tongue was shot full of muscle relaxant before every take.

This is a thoughtful and sincere attempt at a new take on an old favourite, but the problem with The Four Feathers is that this is one story that trenchantly resists any attempt at a revisionist interpretation. It’s a jingoistic romp or it’s nothing. A full-on, rousing, fairly dimwitted version of this story could conceivably have been a big hit – but Kapur’s attempt at something more cerebral and even-handed really misses the point and appeal of the tale. Worthy, and not without its moments, but ultimately rather dull.

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