Mark Reviews Movies

THE FOUR FEATHERS

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Shekhar Kapur

Cast: Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Kate Hudson, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Sheen, Rupert Penry-Jones, Alex Jennings

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense battle sequences, disturbing images, violence and some sensuality)

Running Time: 2:05

Release Date: 9/20/02


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Review by Mark Dujsik

I have not read A.E.W. Masonís novel The Four Feathers, but director Shekhar Kapurís film adaptation (the sixth filmed version of this material, I learnónone of which I have seen either) makes me want to. I donít know what the book is actually about (Iím not sure the movie does either), but it has to be a lot more than what the movie presentsóor maybe itís a lot less. The movie introduces a look at British Imperialism, a love triangle, a manís inner-turmoil, strategic battles, and a lot more, but never delves into any or any one of them. The whole story feels condensed, and at only a little over two hours, it should be expected. Thereís no time to flesh these people, themes, and situations out. Emphasizing the condensed feeling is the editing, which makes scenes seem disjointed. They still progress logically but with abrupt shifts in place, time, and feeling, and the flow and tempo of the movie are off. The Four Feathers looks like an epic, is structured like an epic, but just doesnít feel like an epic.

At the height of Imperialist Britain in the late 1800s, the best thing a man can do is go off and fight the heathens to retain or gain control of a distant land for the great, Christian empire of Britannia. Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger) is such a young man. Son of a famous general and lucky enough to have a loving fiancťe named Ethne (Kate Hudson) and a group of friends that trust him with their lives. One in particular, by the name of Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley), seems a little jealous of Harry, although itís never clear since the only indication we get is in one shot in which he looks enviously at Harry and Ethne. So, as is likely to happen when youíre country is trying to conquer the world, war breaks out, and the boys are about to be shipped to the Sudan to stop an uprising. That night, Harry comes to the realization that he cannot bring himself to go to war. Is it love? Is it having the responsibility of being in charge of peopleís lives? Whatever way, he resigns the army and receives gifts from his friendsóthree white feathers, the ultimate sign of cowardice. One more is on its way from Ethne once he tells her his story.

This means, of course, that Harry must prove he isnít a coward, and to do so, he heads off to the Sudan on his own. Harryís reasons for leaving the army were unclear, but we could accept almost anything. His reasons for going away are important but without clarity, and this sets up the basic problem of sympathizing with him. Why is he doing this? To protect his friends heís abandoned or to show them up? Either way, considering the little we do know about his character, it seems a bit of a stretch. The first demands that we forget his desire to resign, despite his friendsí presence in his regiment, and the second requires that we sympathize with a ludicrously selfish individualóa man who would risk his life just to prove someone wrong. Heath Ledger is fine in the role, but heís faced with a dramatic conundrum that canít be overcome.  The relationships between the friends arenít given enough depth for us to really care about the quest for honor, and Ethneís feather-giving leaves us feeling cold toward her, leaving us wondering why Harry would still want her. The most intriguing relationship appears between Harry and a fierce wanderer played by Djimon Hounsou.

The technical aspects of The Four Feathers are its strongpoint. The craft on display is typical of an epic and, as such, is occasionally stunning. The cinematography by Robert Richardson captures the air of properness and stateliness in the domestic scenes as well as it does stark elegance of the desert. The very few sequences of fighting are well-done enough but could be more. In scenes of training in the beginning, we see how harmless these exercises make war seem. Thereís a chance here to show the difference between the practice and reality of war, but the relatively bloodless and too-choreographed battle sequences donít do it. Thereís one pivotal sequence in which a group of Sudanese rebels has captured an important fort and dressed in the uniforms of British cavalryman. The tension builds quite nicely in this scene, and thereís a sense of the understanding of the difference in tactics between both sides. The British technique involves more show than strategy and is therefore useless against the guerilla tactics of the Sudanese soldiers. Thereís one shot in this scene in particular thatís breathtakingóan aerial shot of the British square formation as itís rushed at by the rebels.

As impressive as this single shot is, the movie doesnít hold it long enough for us to fully appreciate it. The whole of The Four Feathers is like this, really. It has no breathing room. Each element and plot point is presented quickly and then moves on to the next element or plot point without allowing any time for the audience to appreciate it or adding any more depth than is absolutely necessary to move things along. And thatís too bad, because I know there must be something of real substance lying hidden in this material.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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