Whatís the point of Shekhar Kapurís revisionist takes on British Imperial tradition when all he does is tell the same stories less well? His overrated, Oscar-nominated Elizabeth (1998) survived his excesses only through Cate Blanchettís regal performance. His adaptation of the 1902 A.E.W. Mason adventure novel The Four Feathers distinguishes itself from the many previous versions by being the most expensive and incoherent.
Tightly wound British Army officer Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger) resigns his commission when his unit is called up for service in the war against the Mahdist uprising in the Sudan in, according to a title card, 1875. (This didnít actually take place until 1885, but, like the colors of the uniforms, details, details . . . ) Is he a closet pacifist? Is he rebelling against tradition? Does he see this silly foreign adventure as unimportant next to his impending nuptials to lovely Ethne (Kate Hudson)? Does he fear fear itself? Or is he simply a coward, as three fellow officers and Ethne herself think when they present him with the four emblems of the title? Who cares? Certainly not Kapur, who is more concerned with filming battle scenes from overhead (heís the Busby Berkeley of historical epics) and indulging in the suffering of Ledger as he disguises himself as an Arab and journeys through Northern Africa undercover to redeem his honor by saving the lives of his accusers.
True, Ledgerís Feversham does look at times like John Walker Lindh, but that coincidence is about as trenchant as Kapur gets on the issues of imperialism, loyalty, cowardice, and heroism. More to the point, heís incapable of telling a tale as limpidly structured as this ó the four feathers get blown away in a narrative designed for ADD victims. The eloquent 1939 Zoltán Korda version addressed a British people who opted to stay home and regretted it and who were about to endure six years of historyís most appalling war. The evanescent glitz and gratuitous spectacle offered by this featherweight concoction seem an all-too-appropriate preparation for Americaís conflicts to come. (128 minutes)