‘Four Feathers’ just shy of four stars

Paul Benedict

It’s been almost four years since director Shekhar Kapur’s Oscar-nominated “Elizabeth” enchanted critics, so with much anticipation comes his latest Oscar-buzzed film, “The Four Feathers.” Though it won’t exactly rev up the Oscar race this year like “Elizabeth” did in 1998, it will acquire its share of attention due to a couple of noteworthy aspects, namely the gorgeous landscapes and art direction, and the scene-stealing performance from Djimon Hounsou.

Adapted from the novel by A.E.W. Mason, “The Four Feathers” begins telling its story in 1898 England, where a division of British soldiers is notified of plans to be shipped out to the Sudan to settle an ongoing conflict with the Mahdi. Respected soldier and recently-engaged Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger) comes to grips with the duties of being a solider and immediately reconsiders his will to fight for England. With no approval from his friends or fiancée Ethne (Kate Hudson), Harry decides that he has to do what he feels is right, even if it is spineless, and deserts the army altogether. After receiving four feathers of cowardice from three former soldier pals and his fiancée, Harry realizes that he has abandoned a moral obligation to fight with his best friends. So, he sets forth on a journey to the Sudanese Desert to find his regiment and protect them at all costs.

Despite an enthralling story to work with, the script is what will ultimately prevent the film from attaining serious Oscar consideration. Harry changes his mind too subtly about fighting in the war. One minute he seems so self-assured of his decision to leave the military, and the next he has this epiphany and decides to take matters into his own hands. It left me wondering, wouldn’t that make Harry a coward to himself? Obviously his will to act on his true feelings weren’t as strong as the humiliation he was made to feel by his loved ones. This is a major fault in the plot.

I was also a little beset with the over-emphasized love triangle between Harry, Ethne, and Jack (Wes Bentley), which seemingly slowed down the pace of the film. To make smooth transitions from action to romance, you need the two sides to have similar aesthetic appeal, and in this case, the action triumphed over the romance. In spite of these flaws, I felt the overall production was strong, moreso than I initially expected. I was skeptical over the casting of a young, inexperienced trio to play the major roles of the film. However, I was impressed with the performances of Ledger, Hudson, and Bentley. Ledger, in his first lead performance since 2001’s “A Knight’s Tale,” took another step towards earning credibility as an actor rather than just a teenage heartthrob. He made a point of explaining in the interview that Harry was a very broad character that he was able to craft into his own. I’m not sure if I could see anyone else play the role of Harry, and that should tell you how well he authenticated the part. However, Djimon Hounsou (“Amistad,” “Gladiator”) is the man who ultimately shines the brightest. His imposing presence and heroic personality as Abou made him almost impossible not to watch with admiration. The finest scenes in the film contain his character and have much to do with his remarkable performance.

While the imagery and backdrops of the film aree truly marvelous to look at, they probably won’t get as much due as “Elizabeth” did (It won “Best Makeup” and was nominated for “Best Cinematography,” “Art Direction” and “Costume Design” in 1998) since the majority of the sets were filmed in natural landscapes. However, Kapur did a terrific job of making the film look and feel very real. It’s not easy to film in the desert, as evidenced by the notorious two years it took to film the 1962 classic “Lawrence of Arabia,” but Kapur managed to film the picture in a mere three months.

I’m really not sure what to expect from “The Four Feathers” in terms of public appeal and box office receipts as it’s the kind of “tweener” film that doesn’t exactly have a directed audience. The cast would make you think the movie is geared mostly towards young adults and twenty-somethings, but the story and genre seem aimed at mature adults as well. Regardless of how the movie ultimately fares, it’s safe to say that notwithstanding some minor imperfections, “The Four Feathers” should tickle just about anyone’s fancy.

Grade: B