"The Four Feathers"
Director: Shekhar Kapur

Diana Takata

While Shekhar Kapur's Academy award winning Elizabeth (starring Cate Blanchet) was about as good a English language feature debut as one could ask for, Kapur's followup The Four Feathers left me looking for something more and somewhat confused by the filmmaker's intentions. The look of the film is spectacular, and the sweep and scope initially promise much, but fall short as the story unfolds and the film's central character, Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger) proves to be so ambivalent that we wonder if half his performance ended up on the cutting room floor. Having not read the novel, I'll assume the Harry's ambivalence is true to his character; but yet, Kapur's choice of how to portray Harry visually -- literally as a Christ-like image in the desert -- seems to run counter to the films ostensible themes of "love, honor and passion" and gives the film an thematic undertow that never is fully realized.

The story, which takes place in the early 1900's, revolves around Harry's essential cowardice in the face of war, as Harry decides to bow out of the military, abandoning his best friend Jack (Wes Bentley) in order to marry the beautiful Ethne (Kate Hudson). Ethne, faced with the social shame of his cowardice, calls off the wedding and Harry is left without fiance and friends, as well as disowned by his father, also a military man. Three military friends, plus Ethne, give Harry four white feathers to symbolize his cowardice.

I'll argue that the main theme the film maybe be one of cowardice, but not on screen, as the filmmaker decides to pull a punch after leaving us to believe that Harry is either a closet pacifist or philosopher who questions the moral authority of the British Empire. Kapur reveals Harry as neither: he was simply afraid, and shame forces him to seek redemption. The soul of the film proves to be unsatisfactory because it forsakes a great opportunity to make a statement, and misses the mark, questioning the value of statements, it seems, over the importance of the literal narrative -- even if that narrative screams out many levels of social realities. A more thoughtful analysis in the screenplay would have revealed a multi-leveled theme more interesting than what plays out here. It's as if the film both wants greatness but shies away from it, fearing its own power. In fairness to the film's creative team, this flaw could indeed be traced back to A.E.W. Mason's original novel, on which The Four Feathers was based.

This kind of self-castration happens all the time in Hollywood films, perennially afraid of upsetting the masses. In this time of wars and wars alarms, perhaps Paramount and Miramax didn't want to push out a pacifist message, which is what The Four Feathers seems yearning to speak, but somehow can't.

-- Diana Takata


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