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The Four Feathers

Making a film that has already been made six times before is daunting enough — in the case of 2002's The Four Feathers, going in with an $80 million budget was nothing short of a gamble, and one that did not pay off. The episodic adventure story grossed a mere $18.3 million in domestic markets and did marginally well overseas, leaving it to the sturdy DVD format — and time — to determine the film's true worth. And it's not that The Four Feathers is a bad picture. It's actually quite good compared to the mindless comedies and romances that are the mainstay of American cineplexes. But one almost suspects that the market for this sort of period drama is rapidly dwindling. Based on the 1910 novel by A.E.W. Mason (adapted by Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini), Heath Ledger stars as Harry Faversham, a soldier in the British army at the height of Victorian Britain's global reign. The son of a military officer, Harry is engaged to Ethne Eustace (Kate Hudson), and his regiment is stationed in England — along with his official duties, Harry bides his time with best friends Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley), Trench (Michael Sheen), Willoughby (Rupert Penry-Jones), and Castleton (Kris Marshall). However, on the eve that the regiment is called to serve in the brewing Sudanese conflict, Harry inexplicably resigns — best friend Jack tries to defend him, but his remaining colleagues bestow upon him four white feathers, which are traditional symbols of cowardice. With the regiment in the Sudan, Harry begins to doubt his decision, which has cost him his engagement with Ethne, and he takes the bold step of smuggling himself into Africa, where he plans to pose as a Muslim in order to gain information that may help the British army, and his friends. Directed by Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) with an eye for historical detail, The Four Feathers could have been a stronger performer under different circumstances. Twenty years ago, when audiences still had an appetite for historical dramas, it very well could have been an Oscar contender with its sweeping, romantic story. Different casting may have helped as well — everyone does marvelous work with the material, but nowadays it takes someone with A-list stature (such as Mel Gibson) to sell this sort of ticket. As a miniseries, The Four Feathers would have been a television event, albeit without the $80 million price-tag that makes it so attractive in the first place. Thus, it's shunted off to home video with little fanfare — and that's a shame. The film does have a few drawbacks — Harry's original cowardice is poorly explained, and much harder to accept after his later ordeals. Kate Hudson is awfully cute, but she doesn't seem to have have the requisite nobility for her role as Ethne. And as an African tribesman who looks after Harry in the desert, Djimon Hounsou (Amistad) once again is asked to play the noble savage in a part that does little to surprise the viewer. But the film's merits far outweigh these slights. Heath Ledger may not be a marquee lead just yet, but he takes on the part of Harry with convincing passion. As friend (and eventual suitor to Ethne) Jack, Wes Bentley offers the subtle energy of a British soldier ready to do his duty, but also unafraid to speak his mind when necessary. The other cast members are equally appealing with detailed characterizations, and it's all drawn together by an opulent production that features everything from military balls to brutal desert warfare to hard time in a Sudanese prison. If you count yourself among those who are addled by short attention-spans, The Four Feathers may not be your cup of Earl Grey. Otherwise, it's a splendid example of its genre and well worth a spin. Paramount's DVD features a clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround. Features include a commentary with director Kapur, eight behind-the-scenes featurettes, and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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