Harry (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Wes Bentley), are two soldiers in the Queen's army in the 1870s. Well schooled in the honor one earns through service, the two friends are ready to take life by the reigns and ride to glory. But when the British army is called into duty to protect interests in the Sudan, Harry questions the fight and ultimately wants out of the service, much to the shock and dismay of his fellow soldiers, and his fiancee Ethne (Kate Hudson). Harry is given feathers as a parting gift for his duty, a symbol of his cowardice. Shunned by those around him, Harry takes off to the Middle East to track the army's movements, and to find any remnants of honor in himself. It is there, with the help of his spiritual guide, a native called Abou (Djimon Hounsou, "Amistad"), that Harry finds himself thrust into battle and proves to be the only hope for the very same men who presented him with the feathers.
Shekhar Kapur's "The Four Feathers" (IMDb listing) is a fine example of epic filmmaking, and a picture that would be better served if the year were 1962, and audiences had the patience for such a luxuriously detailed story. But this is 2002, and studio heads fear for anything that might require a degree of tolerance from the audience. Thus "The Four Feathers," for all its potential, is a flawed film. Based on the novel by A. E. W. Mason, the story is a considerable one, filled with chronicles of friendship, desire, bloodshed, and the rebirth of a man's pride. You can see these ideas run throughout the film, but with only 125 minutes to work with, Kapur can only share a brief liaison with each defining theme. This doesn't serve the movie well, creating an incomplete, herky-jerky momentum to the tale. Crucial character motivations and emotional arcs are lost in what I can only assume is a studio mandate to bring the running time down to a respectable roar. "The Four Feathers" is never boring, and would probably benefit from being longer, in that it feels as though Kapur shot the film in a fashion that would play out more appropriately over three hours. As the film appears now, it takes much more patience trying to keep up with the ever-leaping storyline, and a yellow legal pad to keep track of each character's mental state. I can't imagine that a director with Kapur's track record ("Bandit Queen," "Elizabeth") would've wanted his film this way.
Even with the film's truncated storytelling, it would take an army of millions to hold back Kapur's gift for direction. Continuing his rise in production values, "Four Feathers" represents the best looking film Kapur has made to date. Rich in detail and color, Kapur takes his shot at big money filmmaking and runs with it. The wide desert vistas of Harry's journey across the Sudan reveal a journey into Hell few men return from. A mid-movie battle scene between the Brits and the locals rivals "Braveheart" in detailing the futile attempts at gentlemanly combat. And Kapur really outdoes himself with a sequence set inside a claustrophobic prison where there isn't even room to sit down. It's filled with an ever-moving mass of the incarcerated, and anyone who can't keep up is simply trampled under foot and forgotten. I could barely breathe watching it.
For Heath Ledger, "Four Feathers" offers him a chance at a real character with real purpose. A far cry from the bubblegum nonsense of last summer's "A Knight's Tale," Ledger shines in the lead role. Delivering a complex performance of shame, confusion, and honor, Ledger takes the movie away from everyone else, including some strong work by the normally silent Hounsou, and the miscast Hudson (in a glorified cameo), who raises the question, "Why isn't a better, British actress in her role?" For co-star Wes Bentley, the young actor retains some of the enthusiasm he elicited for his defining "American Beauty" performance. After stinking up the joint for a couple of years in good films ("The Claim") and some awful ones ("Soul Survivors"), Bentley, at the very least, doesn't embarrass himself as he has before. The verdict is still out on this actor.
"The Four Feathers" isn't much to crow about, but there's enough here to make it passable to even the most uninterested moviegoer. I just hope next time, Kapur will be able to tell his story the way he intended, and not cut apart his movie apart for the masses.
Filmfodder Grade: B-