The Four Feathers
Director: Shekhar Kapur. Cast: Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Kate Hudson, Djimon Hounsou, Rupert Penry-Jones, Michael Sheen, Kris Marshall, Alex Jennings, Tim Pigott-Smith. Screenplay: Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini (based on the novel by A.E.W. Mason).

Welcome to The Four Feathers, a wax museum arranged and animated into semi-life for you by director Shekhar Kapur and principal producer Stanley R. Jaffe. It really won't do to attribute creative authority to one or the other of this unlikely couple, since the stalemate between them is woefully evident at every point in The Four Feathers, a movie that keeps trying to be two things at once. Kapur, an import from the thriving commercial cinema of India, seems to have envisioned a hypercolored, swoony-camera'd, melodramatic revisionist rebuke to English imperial history, the same kind of Bolly-wolly doodle that made British royalism look simultaneously decrepit and notably well-frocked in 1998's Elizabeth. Jaffe, meanwhile, fails to see what's so funny, much less what was so ferocious, about the allegedly rousing and nostalgic spectacle of alpha-male schoolboys let loose to conquer a savage world. It is worth remembering that Jaffe's last outing as a producer was the ill-fated Kim Basinger vehicle I Dreamed of Africa. That movie has now received the sequel it never needed: I Dreamed of Invading Africa he might have titled it—or, to plumb the catalogue of real hit sequels for good luck, why not just The Empire Strikes Back?

Whatever gave Jaffe the notion to hire Kapur is hardly less baffling than what Kapur expected to accomplish by trying to adapt a late-Victorian British novel using British funds handed out by British bosses. Schizophrenic collaboration is not always a bust—I was one of those who found A.I. Artificial Intelligence all the more interesting for its manifest bipolarities—but The Four Feathers sinks, and sinks early, because the fundamental material is hardly worth resurrecting in the first place unless disciplined historical reassessment, to say nothing of basic cinematic savvy, is to be exercised.

The opening sequence, where young British military recruits bash and assail one another on the rugby field, is one of the few scenes in the movie that really works. The ferocity of the images, shot by Robert Richardson so as to be nearly identical with the football-field brutalities he captured in Any Given Sunday, fits Kapur's aesthetic of clobbering his audience with his messages and allusions—in this case, the obvious irony of laced-up British ladies cooing about mud-stained adolescents nearly killing each other over a ball. This, to Kapur, is imperial Britain, and so it is to Jaffe, though his own rationalization of the image is harder to surmise. For all its palpable physicality, this sequence is unlikely to awaken any new thoughts in the audience, who will no doubt receive it either as disgusting ritual or vintage Xtreme Sports based on prejudices and mindframes we carried with us into the theater.

The remainder of the film is, at least, more equal opportunity, since across the full range of an audience's political sympathies and historical consciences, nearly everyone is destined to be flummoxed and bored. Heath Ledger exists at the story's center as Harry Feversham, a Royal Cumbrian officer of the British Army to whom a lot happens in the course of a few days: he helps win the rugby match (v.g.), canoodles with his doll-like fiancée Ethne (Kate Hudson) during and after a military ball, learns that his regiment is soon to deploy to the Sudan, decides he can't hack it, quits the military, loses his friends, loses his fiancée, is denounced by his battlefield-legend pop, and lands himself in a really yucky one-room flat. Anyone who can confront all of these occasions with no more than two facial expressions is a genius of economy, but probably not a born actor. Ledger, Hudson, indeed almost everyone in The Four Feathers vanish into their roles, but not in the Streepian sense of merging with their characters. They actually vanish—while their dialogue enunciates itself from somewhere offscreen, their faces become almost disconcertingly void, like blank, beige patches on the surface of the screen where by all rights a performer should be.

The acting remains so sallow and the incidents of the story so dubious—the English boys, rah-rah, head into the Saharan quarrel their superiors have cooked up for them, while a floridly apologetic Harry secretly comes to their aid, or tries to, while disguised as a North African Muslim (!)—as to be beneath commentary. It is less shocking to me that five directors have filmed this material in years past than that anyone would film it now, so addled is it in its sense of global politics, its revelry in stereotype and deus ex machina, its incoherent investments in Big Ideas like loyalty, friendship, country. Having forsaken the British Army only to serve British soldiers, as a Berber impostor who fools many Africans but still speaks English throughout most of his "disguise," our boy Harry ultimately rides with the Mardi into a raid on the Brits that he has vainly attempted to sabotage, and then he feels so guilty about the consequences that he gets himself sent to a Mardi prison. Djimon Hounsou, more than willing to play the strapping, exotic black helpmeet in Gladiator, pops in for a second helping here, as Harry's mystical sidekick—apparently a member of a slave tribe, though we never see him with any of his own people. But hey. More stuff happens, culminating with an epilogue of Harry's return to British soil to woo Ethne, herself an overt symbol of the imperial culture which all of his misadventures would presumably have undercut. What Harry has actually succeeded in doing, bobbed and weirdly eye-lined as he now appears, is proving that months of soldiery and slavery in African terrain can turn even the most boyish cavalier into an exact replica of Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums.

These are potshots. The film leaves itself wide open for them, and they are worth making, because it hardly need be said that grandly appointed epics about national conquest, suppression of "savages," and honor among warriors is hardly what global audiences presently need—indeed, ever need—without at least some modicum of psychological, political, or even narrative precision. Here, for example, are two story events that this 125-minute film doesn't find room for: how Harry gets from England to Africa, and how he gets back. We don't even see the bestowing of the titular fourth feather, though we're subjected to minute after laborious minute of the conversation where we later learn he acquired it. So I'd just as soon throw out any notion of recuperating The Four Feathers as a justifiable portrait of a culture, a cogent piece of propaganda, or even a good yarn. And it's clearly not an acting piece. What got me into the theater at all was the promise, through the presence of Kapur and of longtime Oliver Stone cinematographer Richardson, of some visual ingenuity and tacit counternarrative. There are, indeed, some images to remember, most powerfully a sophisticated four-flanked Venus flytrap attack that the Mardis carry off over the Brits and the Bosch-caliber vision of a slave dungeon whose crowded inhabitants must walk all night in a constant, senseless circle, their heads nearly drowning beneath the waterline of everyone else's shoulders.

And yet, if Kapur and Richardson have their sporadic successes, aestheticizing the dingy cultural mythologies of The Four Feathers is hardly a point of pride for the old résumé. And besides, basic cinematic vocabulary fails these artisans as often as it nearly redeems them. For example, in the sleepless-night interlude when Harry initially decides he can't go to war—not because he doubts the empire, craves his imminent marriage, or wishes to abandon his comrades, but because he simply fears for the mortal safety of his own body—Kapur and his witless editors totally abstract the implication by framing tightly on Heath Ledger's vibeless face, and linking those close-ups with dissolves and jump cuts. In other words, Harry's body could hardly feel less mortal and real than it does in this key sequence, the very juncture where a film like the recent Atanarjuat knows how crucial it is to remind us of the thickness of skin, bareness of feet, the pumping of muscles—the exposed material of a human life succinctly rendered in jeopardy. It is not just our retroactive awareness of historical arrogance, then, but the unwitting self-abstraction of a technically careless film, that makes The Four Feathers' events and protagonists into apparitions, relics of imperial pasts that are forgotten at our peril but are even more dangerously re-aggrandized as empty spectacle. Grade: D

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