The Four Feathers
review by Dan Lybarger, 20 September 2002

Filmed nearly half a dozen times, A.E.W. Mason's The Four Feathers is both timeless and dated. First published in 1902, the story was written in a time when European colonialism seemed not only a good idea but a divine right. Watching Alexander and Zoltan Korda's 1939 adaptation is an occasionally uncomfortable experience. Seeing hordes of black men being routed by the Brits seems eerily similar to watching the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue in The Birth of a Nation. Still, many of the ideological divides that led to the Victorian era conflict depicted in the tale haven't gone away, nor have the story's themes of cowardice and redemption. In the right hands, The Four Feathers could have felt thoroughly modern despite the period costumes.

Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur is an intriguing choice for the latest version. Born in what would later become Pakistan during the waning days of British occupation, Kapur, who has lived in both India and the U.K, approaches the material in an understandably less jingoistic manner. More importantly, his last movie Elizabeth made the scheming behind the Virgin Queen's reign as gripping as a well-made contemporary gangster flick. He's not able to repeat his previous success with this one, though. Much of The Four Feathers feels staid, and concessions for today's viewers seem more than a little forced.

At least Kapur wisely recruited another talented Australian to play his protagonist. Last time, it was Cate Blanchett. In The Four Feathers, Heath Ledger stars as Harry Feversham, a young British Army lieutenant with a bright future. His military career is just starting, and his engagement to Ethne (Kate Hudson, spouting a less-than-convincing British drawl) has made him the envy of many in the junior officer corps. With his whole life ahead of him, it's small wonder that Harry gets cold feet when his unit is about to be deployed in the Sudan.

Leery about risking his life for a campaign of questionable necessity, Harry resigns his commission. His peers feel more than a little betrayed and deliver him an insult: a box of white feathers. The plumes are a symbol of cowardice. Gradually regretting his decision, Harry decides that merely returning to the Army isn't enough to restore his honor. His acts from here on vary from brave to suicidal. The tale at this point becomes a feast for the eyes (thanks to Snow Falling on Cedars cinematographer Robert Richardson) and fitful nourishment for the heart and head. While the Moroccan locales are gorgeous, Harry's bearded, hairy disguise makes him more like a hippie who missed the bus to Woodstock than an Arab. At least the 1939 version came up with a semi-credible technique for enabling him to blend with the populace (he pretended to be mute).

This time around Harry has an African sidekick named Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou from Amistad) who bails him out every time his desire to prove his valor starts to get unhealthy. Hounsou imbues the role with considerable dignity, but many times his sacrifices on Harry's behalf are rather contrived. It's almost as if credited screenwriters Michael Schiffer (Crimson Tide) and Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) felt obligated to create a "good" Sudanese character.

In many ways, this adaptation follows in the path of the Kordas' version, including the missteps. That version was also handsomely photographed (Jack Cardiff who shot The African Queen and The Red Shoes was one of the cinematographers). Both movies also seemed to lose momentum after Harry rescues his best friend Jack (Wes Bentley). It's almost as if Harry's later exploits are an afterthought.  The romantic triangle subplot in both movies is flat. Waiting for it to resolve is less exciting than watching C-SPAN with the sound off. Ledger and Bentley have more chemistry with each other than either does with Hudson. While she is certainly miscast, the material gives her a rather shaky foundation. This is a shame because much of the strength of Kapur's Elizabeth and Bandit Queen was the unusual strength and dynamic nature of the female leads.

Ledger won't have to worry about receiving any feathers for this one. While he's often treated as something of a teen idol, he frequently demonstrates an eagerness to dive into his characters' weaknesses that more seasoned performers sometimes lack. This was certainly evident in Monsters Ball. Even in something as slight as A Knight's Tale, he manages to create enough foibles and sensitivities to make the roles he plays seem more human.

Had the rest of the film featured the same courage and intelligence demonstrated in Ledger's performance, sitting through The Four Feathers might not have seemed as arduous as walking across the desert.

Directed by:
Shekhar Kapur

Starring:
Heath Ledger
Kate Hudson
Wes Bentley
Djimon Hounsou
Michael Sheen

Written by:
Michael Schiffer 
Hossein Amini

Rating:
PG-13 Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may be
inappropriate for 
children under 13.

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