From the opening credits, it seems that director Shekhar Kapur has a pretty good handle on the themes driving his epic action drama, The Four Feathers.
A violent game of rugby is crosscut with reaction shots from its stately British onlookers. Kapur plays so nicely for so long with the notion that England’s colony-conquering mentality circa 1884 never could reconcile itself with the docile façade of its upper class. These themes lend some weight to what might otherwise be a pulpy story of self-discovery, adventure and war. Imagine a PG-13, redcoat version of Black Hawk Down where the unending gore is replaced by luscious cinematography.
In the film’s clumsy resolution, though, Kapur loses total command of his film and careens toward a gift-wrapped Hollywood ending that all but negates any powerful statement the film has made. Ultimately, The Four Feathers is nothing more than a handsomely mounted escapist action flick.
Heath Ledger plays Harry Faversham, a dashing British soldier who is engaged to the love of his life, Ethne Eustace (a woefully miscast Kate Hudson). On the evening of being shipped to the Sudan to battle rebel warriors, Harry resigns from the army. He can’t understand why Britain must fight to acquire that one particular spot in the world. Also, he’s scared of death and admits as much. Disavowed by everyone he knows, Harry travels to the Sudan to somehow prove himself. While there, he learns that his former squad is endangered, and he tries to protect Jack (Wes Bentley), the one friend who didn’t brand Harry a coward.
Some early moments in The Four Feathers feel like they’re rushing too far forward at times, as though Kapur is itching to get to the battle scenes set in the Sudan. But they’re made tolerable by Ledger’s performance. With a grimace here and there, Ledger shows us the shades of Harry’s cowardice before it is explicitly revealed. Ledger is a pretty face who is truly talented, and these little touches help us to care about Harry’s journey.
When the film shifts to the Sudan, it would be easy for Kapur to give us a tame, picturesque vision of war. But he does not, opting instead to suggest that Britain has overstepped its boundaries. To his credit (and the screenwriters’), this point is made not through cumbersome dialogue, but by interesting situations, actions and how certain characters are framed onscreen.
The film’s centerpiece is an outstanding battle sequence, in which Sudanese fighters bear down on Harry’s former regiment and trap them in a very small, square fort. Kapur’s use of silence to build up the battle scene makes the desert seem more savage and desolate. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is striking, but the visceral visuals hit us harder than would a mere pretty picture. An astounding overhead shot shows not only the violent scope of the ambush, but poetically conveys just how easily the British were fooled by their pride.
Kapur’s strength lies with these grittier parts of the film, not its obligatory, lumbering romantic triangle subplot. It’s no surprise when Ethne ultimately falls for Jack, and even less of a surprise when Harry learns of it. The story is not only weak, but it hinders the actors as well. There are one too many cutaways to an oh-so-jealous reaction from Bentley in the film’s opening moments and Hudson … well, let’s just say Almost Famous might have been a fluke.
To begin with, Hudson looks too Midwestern to be a British gentlewoman. It doesn’t help that her countenance shifts between “bored” and “comatose.” Ultimately, Ethne becomes too duplicitous a character. Late in the film, one character tells her she deserves to be happy. At that particular moment, the line is so bad, it’s laughable.
Without giving anything away, it is through the Ethne character that the film’s ending derails. The film’s final, excruciating exchange of dialogue seems lifted from a different film. While the first two hours of The Four Feathers contain some of the most poetic battle commentary since Braveheart, the last 10 minutes are tripped up by dopey melodrama like what you’d find on All My Children.