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As if there weren’t enough drama in everyday love stories, moviemakers seem particularly inclined to place romance against a background of war, presumably leading to heightened emotions, tragic developments, and cathartic reunions. In recent years films in this genre worthy of note include Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair in which Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes’ adulterous passion is set against the background of the London blitz. In Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas’ adulterous passion is set in North Africa, as recalled from World War II Italy. Less successful attempts have been this year’s Pearl Harbor (with a love triangle consisting of Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, and Josh Hartnett–in the Pacific, of course) and Enemy at the Gates, in which Jude Law and Joseph Fiennes compete for the attentions of Rachel Weisz at the siege of Stalingrad.
Why were the first two films so effective, while the latter films bogged down helplessly? The answer can be expressed in three words: character, character, and character. Minghella and Jordan, armed with intelligent scripts, rooted their stories in the development of interesting, quirky, individualized, complex, believable characters–characters who change in credible ways in response to each other and the situations in which they find themselves. Terrific acting helps, but can go only so far in fleshing out a poorly conceived screenplay.
The latest entry in this sweepstakes is Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, based on the best-selling novel by Louis de Bernieres, placed on a Greek island at the beginning of World War II. Pelagia (Penelope Cruz), the daughter of Dr. Iannis (John Hurt), is in love with a young peasant, Mandras (Christian Bale). Mandras is going off to the war and he and Pelagia want to marry, but Iannis refuses her a dowry, handing her a gun instead, and telling her that that is what she will need in the war. So she settles for an engagement and Mandras departs.
The Italians occupy Greece and Italian troops establish themselves on the island, complete with parasol-carrying camp followers, a squad that sings as if in a Romberg operetta, and topless parties on the beach. The artillery captain, Corelli (Nicolas Cage) is billeted at the Iannis household, a hilltop villa that looks like a Martha Stewart interpretation ofcountry luxe a la Grec. There is, of course, initial resistance, the reluctance to deal with the enemy–but the hero and heroine are both young and sexy and how could Pelagia resist the enticing tinkle of the captain’s mandolin?
There are three ingredients missing here: character, character, and character. Every one of the principals as written is predictable; they are cookie-cutouts without depth or individuality. Hurt brings some subtlety and his wonderfully smoky voice to the role of the doctor but cannot add much flesh to the impossibly skeletal characterization–the stereotyped wise and prescient parent. Cruz, beautiful and simmering with potential, is stuck with lines like, "A brave Italian is a freak of nature!" Cage has more to work with; his captain has some charm and some convictions, but mostly he’s left to moon over Cruz. Christian Bale offers a one-note, career-destroying performance of such stiffness that his face seems to be immobilized with novocaine. Both he and the script have trouble distinguishing illiteracy from stupidity. (And how could his intelligent betrothed not know something of his limitations? Credulity is stretched beyond the breaking point.) The great Irene Papas is utterly wasted as Mandras’ mother, a role that has been minimized in the screenplay; she has few lines, but her eyes suggest more than this screenwriter will ever know.
Production values are high–fine cinematography, beautiful views of the mountainous island surrounded by the sea. But the mise en scene is as sanitized, homogenized and romanticized as the script. There’s not a twig out of place on the island and even when war arrives, it does so picturesquely, as if even war could be reduced to picture-postcard prettiness. At all the appropriate moments Stephen Warbeck’s banal score swells and strains with masses of strings desperately trying to inject the emotional energy lacking on screen.
Director John Madden, whose work in Ethan Frome and Mrs. Brown was first rate, and who famously rescued Shakespeare in Love, has met a script here that even his magic has not been able to salvage. Seldom has so little been accomplished in two (very long) hours.