Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Four Feathers

We had one more sequence to film for Goodfollies in London before moving on to new locations in Spain, France and Italy. This, another brilliant musical dream sequence, features my character, Toni Soprano, squaring off with her evil mother, Lydia. The number begins with the two of us eating lunch at the rooftop restaurant in Harvey Nichols. As we fight bitterly, extras in simply stunning Christian Lacroix gowns begin a food ballet, chanting the names of all the different pastas in Italian to a sort of Gregorian Chant techno beat. Lydia and I then continue our fight in a tapped pas de deux across Knightsbridge, passing through the Harrods's food halls where our costumes change to mid-Victorian and we end up in Hyde Park, across from the barracks where I triumphantly plant a Union Jack in her chest as the horse guards canter by in glittering formation. I'm still a little unclear what this has to do with lady mobsters in New Jersey, as I was unaware that such persons ever wore bustles, but I never understood Lady in the Dark either.

Norma Desmond, coaxed out of a long and somewhat unwitting retirement in Atascadero, plays the evil Lydia. The poor dear must be 110 if she's a day and had grave difficulty hitting her marks, even with her walker. We had to do take after take of the scene where she slides down the banister of the Harrods's escalator into the Dodi Fayed memorial. I swear, if I'd heard that woman shriek about fracturing her hip one more time, I would have come completely unglued. We finally got the shot and I was so pleased when I was finally able to stake her square in the chest for the grand finale. I thought about missing the steel plate that protected her rib cage but realized we would need her for shooting sequences later. Fortunately, she left me alone between takes. She spent her down time searching the crew for a Joe Gideon and a packet of razor blades.

We were fortunate enough to use some of the real ceremonial horse guard as extras and I was so thoroughly charming to them, that they invited me to a free screening of a new little film in which they had played a small part - Shekhar Kapur's new remake of the classic adventure story, The Four Feathers with Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, and Kate Hudson. I always enjoyed the Alexander Korda production of the same story and looked forward to a modern take on the material, especially as the new director and one of the screenwriters are respectively Indian and Arab and might have illuminating things to say about the jingoistic attitudes of the British Empire at its height. Unfortunately, they botch the job and create a lifeless drama with little to say about anything, including plot and character.

The Four Feathers takes place in the 1880s. The British Army in the Sudan is under attack by Islamic extremists. (Some things never change). The film mentions General Gordon a time or two, but does little to inform the viewer, unschooled in 19th century history, what the British were doing in the Sudan, who Gordon was, or even where the Sudan might be. Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger), a young lieutenant with the Royal Cumbrian regiment, is engaged to the charming Ethne Eustace (Kate Hudson). His regiment is celebrating with a grand ball. Faversham comes from a military family; his father (Tim Piggott-Smith) is a general and he is expected to follow in the family tradition. When his regiment is ordered to the Sudan to help quell the uprising, Faversham has a crisis of conscience. He realizes he is not cut out for army life and resigns his commission. His friends, Trench (Michael Sheen), Willoughby (Rupert Penry-Jones) and Castleton (Kris Marshall) accuse him of cowardice and each sends him a white feather, a symbol of such. Only his best friend Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley) is willing to see his move in another way. Faversham's father disowns him and, in a final betrayal, Ethne also sends him a white feather and breaks off the engagement.

Determined to redeem himself, Faversham makes his own way to the Sudan, disguised as a native. There he meets Abou (Djimon Hounsou), playing his umpteenth variation on the noble savage, who becomes his friend and teaches him the ways of the desert people. Things are not going well for the British, who keep making stupid decisions, leading to a number of less than exciting battle scenes. Faversham engages in a variety of heroics and returns the feathers whence they came under some rather extreme conditions. In the meantime, in a romantic subplot, a love triangle has developed as Jack, home on leave, has fallen for Ethne.

The plot is tailor made for a high spirits Saturday matinee adventure serial (see the 1939 version from Alexander Korda with a young Ralph Richardson, amongst others). Kapur, however, takes a rather dour approach to the whole affair. His solemn pretentiousness, when dealing with cultural differences, drags the film to a complete halt at times. The film feels twenty minutes too long and the whole third act left me with the feeling of 'So What?' Even the bright sunshine of the desert looks grey and troubled in his vision. He also has no idea how to stage scenes for film in order to get maximum effect. The climactic scene is shot through a window where characters speak in the distance and we can't hear a word they're saying. He's also overly fond of overhead crane shots at totally inappropriate moments. It's as if he has a crazed fetish for millinery.

Kapur's last film, the 1998 Elizabeth, received a best picture nomination despite his total lack of talent and he again fails to live up to his potential. That film was saved by the riveting performance of Cate Blanchett. Here, he has no decent actor to save his skin. Heath Ledger, completely ineffective in period clothes, wanders through the film like a dazed zombie. No one could possibly care what happens to his Faversham nor is he able to provide the crucial character transitions so critical to the plot. (The lack of a coherent screenplay doesn't help). Wes Bentley looks pretty and seems more comfortable with the body language of the period, but has no idea how to perform a credible British accent. Kate Hudson comes off pretty well, but she's mainly a plot device and is absent from the screen for very long and very boring stretches.

The screenplay, credited to Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini, is a disaster. The film is improperly set up. The three friends who give Faversham the feathers are given nothing to distinguish themselves. Even the crucial plot element of the feathers themselves is thrown away. Nothing is made of their return. They also seem overly concerned with modern political correctness. The British army are portrayed as bumbling idiots who couldn't have conquered Bournemouth, much less half the planet.

The film has some lovely photography of the desert, reminiscent of The English Patient and Lawrence of Arabia. It also makes good use of Blenheim Palace and the Royal College at Greenwich for the English scenes. Otherwise, it has little in the way of redeeming values. Skip it, unless trapped in economy on a particularly long transcontinental flight.

Quadrille waltz. Casualty lists. Gratuitous dockside carnival. Solar topees. Runaway cannon. Abandoned corpses. Gratuitous noble savage beating. Implausible prison. Sleeping draughts. Carriage and four. 

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