Actor Djimon Hounsou seems to be typecast into playing roles that involve saving white people from near death in the desert. His characters have now allowed two heroes (played by Australians) to seek redemption from past wrongs by killing en masse and resolving deeply convoluted love interests. Such was the case in Gladiator (2000). Such is also the case in The Four Feathers, which is directed by the widely respected Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth, 1998).
The fourth screen adaptation of A.E.W. Mason's 1902 novel tells the story of Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger), a Royal Cumbrians officer who resigns his commission on the eve of going to war in the Sudan. The Four Feathers referred to in the title are given to Faversham by his three best friends and his fiance Ethne (Kate Hudson), as an accusation of cowardice. Unable to live this down, Faversham makes his own way to the Sudan, where he suffers extreme hardship and performs acts of battlefield heroism despite himself.
In the process he befriends a warrior slave Abou (Hounsou), who becomes his guide, protector, and accomplice, complete with novel catchphrases. When Faversham asks why Abou is protecting him, the hard-hearted nomad replies: "God put you in my way". In Gladiator, he promises to join the dead "someday... but not yet. Not yet." In both films, essentially the same character inspires these trite punch lines. Again, this seems to be a device attached to regular slave hero Hounsou.
In the meantime, Faversham's best friend John (Wes Bentley) has struck up a long distance relationship with Ethne, and in true war-hero spirit asks her to marry him upon his return to England. It's the kind of Victorian melodrama you'd expect in a Merchant Ivory production, except that director James Ivory wouldn't be trying to make an action film.
At a glance Feathers has all the ingredients of the classics. The acting is at least competent, though Hudson is miscast, and the story has everything that Gladiator (2000) had going for it: epic battles, love triangles, good-looking hero, and a topless Djimon Hounsou.
But some perplexing editorial choices and inconsistent pacing destroy the film's emotional depth. Even the picturesque desert battle doesn't rescue what feels like a cruelly abridged text, with some scenes feeling rushed and erratically filmed.
The Four Feathers seems to need an extra 30 minutes to tell its story, and at the same time not need all of its 127 minutes to wade through its impassive script. Meanwhile, neither the rising young Hollywood hottie cast nor Kapur's growing reputation do justice to what at one time may have been an exciting project. This is definitely going to be on Heath Ledger's 'Ten Things I Hate about My Career' list.
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