Shiny Shelf


LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: The Four Feathers

By Stephen Lavington on 15 November 2002

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Charismatic director Shekar Kapur described the Four Feathers as a form of “coming of age” drama at the film’s London premiere, for it details the journey of several young Victorian soldiers ‘from naivete to wisdom’. The trouble is that’s not all he wants from a film that tries to be desert epic, melodrama, a war film and critique of colonialism all at once.

A sort of the anti-’Zulu’, where the common cinematic currency of glory through war along with ideas of service for one’s country is largely jettisoned to make way for the more personal quest of Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger) as he seeks personal discovery and reconciliation with his friends.

There are comparisons to be drawn with Kapur’s ‘Elizabeth’; elaborate dance scenes are important, a difficult decision long agonized over is characterized by a number of jerky jump-cuts signifying passage of time and historical accuracy is stretched to allow for his fantastic storytelling (a worthy choice – the film has an eerie, unreal air).

But whereas ‘Elizabeth’ pointedly avoided set-piece battle scenes, to great effect though it could well have been for reasons of cost, ‘Four Feathers’ indulges itself with several grand scenes including one awesome desert confrontation that has been rightly prominent in the trailers.

However the film as a whole seems messy and incomplete. Pace varies greatly; after throwing you into the story with a bruising rugby game and counterpointing this with a formal dance the narrative seems to lose its way; dwelling on some almost inconsequential details while brushing over important plot points. The impression is that this is due to all the elements Kapur is trying to cram in; there is a lot of desert wandering, the action will jump without warning to crises of conscience on the home front, the aforementioned battle, though not the climax of the movie, takes up a good twenty minutes in its middle, and there follows another long sequence, closely related to the central but dealt with in a way that makes it feel almost peripheral.

In addition, Kapur has added a character to the cast of the original book – a native African named Abou Fatma. Though the performance is excellent (Djimon ‘Amistad’ Hounsou) the purpose is unclear. As ‘noble savage’ Abu does allow for comparison with the ‘white man’s burden’ espoused by a chaplain early on, but the critique of colonialism is handled much better by the juxtaposition of life in England and life in the Sudan – the English soldiers are strangers in a strange land, unwelcome and despised (and rightly so for their bullying and condescending attitudes)- as one character says, why are they there at all? Abu’s presence could be seen as superfluous though Hounsou builds him into a strong and engaging personality. He does add to the mystic feel of the piece though doesn’t really help with tidying up an already crowded film.

A decent but rather flawed work with some great images and performances (Wes Bentley’s affected accent is spot on) but ultimately unsatisfying. ‘Four Feathers’ is one of those films where the aim is clear but where it is also insufficiently handled on screen to really make an impact.


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By Stephen Lavington




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