Literally Speaking: The Four Feathers (2002)

Given the tragic death of Heath Ledger last week this film sort of picked itself out of the pile of DVDs I‘ve got lined up for this series. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of Ledger’s work, of the seventeen films he made (eighteen with The Dark Knight) I’ve only seen eight and, while he was certainly a good actor, he was often overshadowed by his co-stars – Mel Gibson in The Patriot, Billy Bob Thornton in Monster’s Ball and Paul Bettany in A Knight’s Tale – but I’ve yet to see his most acclaimed performance in Brokeback Mountain.

A.E.W. Mason’s novel has been filmed no less than seven times but I’d only seen the classic 1939 version with Ralph Richardson and John Clements prior to watching this. Given that the film has an Indian director in Shekhar Kapur it would be fair to expect a slightly different take on this tale of love and daring-do in the days of the British Empire than previous versions, and, in that regard, the film doesn’t disappoint.

While it shares the central love triangle with previous takes, this isn’t a film about heroics but rather the horrors of war, with the British no better than The Mahdi and his followers, and certainly more arrogant. Rather than being about Harry Faversham’s quest to regain his honour after his friends brand him a coward, the film uses that as a devise to show the suffering war brings and how it brings out the worst in men.

Given the horror it shows us, the film still manages to look beautiful, with Oliver Stone’s cinematographer of choice, Robert Richardson, doing a fine job capturing the spectacle of the battles and the majesty of the desert. It’ll make you thirsty just watching it.

Of the three leads Ledger shines the brightest, with Wes Bentley giving a restrained performance as befits the stiff-upper- lip part he’s playing, while Kate Hudson doesn’t have to do much more than look pretty in period costume (she puts on a decent accent though). It’s Ledger who carries the film, getting stuck in during the battle scenes and showing what a capable horseman he was. His friendship with native Abou Fatma, played by Djimon Hounsou, is far more interesting than his bond with his English cronies and the film contrasts the judgmental nature of his so called civilised friends with the honest comradeship of this Black man.

The film doesn’t really work as a love story, there’s no real chemistry between the leads but the big problem is that the tale it’s telling doesn’t really fit the message it wants to get across. Kapur would have been far better served by an original story set in the period than trying to mould this tale of honour and redemption to fit his needs. History even gets a rewrite, with the outcome of the battle of Abu Klea revised so the British get a pasting.

Not a bad film, but one that’s aspirations are never fully realised, The Four Feathers won’t be the film Heath Ledger is remembered for, even though he’s the best thing about it.

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