There's something dusty about "The Four Feathers," and it's not just all those desert sandstorms. Director Shekhar Kapur ("Elizabeth") brings a richness of color and a sweeping grandeur to the battle scenes in this 1870s-era adventure; what he doesn't bring is a compelling reason to tell a familiar story again. A.E.W. Mason's 1902 novel has been filmed at least four times previously, and perhaps it's time to let this courage-and-camels drama rest in peace.
Heath Ledger stars as Harry Feversham, a member of a British regiment that is suddenly called to active duty in North Africa. When Harry, plagued by doubt, resigns his commission, three of his friends and his beloved fiancée Ethne (Kate Hudson) each send him a white feather — a symbol of cowardice. Harry, in the way of all silver-screen heroes, overcomes his fears and heads into battle to save his friends, where he stabs a camel, grows an unfortunately biblical-looking beard and conquers his self-doubt, not necessarily in that order.
The selling point of this film is its cute young cast, with Wes Bentley filling out the love triangle as Harry's best friend, Jack. Indeed, "Four Feathers" dithers around for its first half-hour, showing us Hudson and Ledger swooning charmingly over each other as they dance at a military ball while Bentley smolders in the background. It's like the prelude to a very high-class bodice-ripper, minus the ripping.
Hudson, who proved in "Almost Famous" that she has the best giggle in the business, is lovely here in a disappointingly small role. I'm not sure whether to credit acting skill or extreme youth (probably both), but her on-screen emotions always feel devastatingly real: When she laughs, you want to laugh with her; when she cries, the world becomes unbearably sad. Although she struggles a bit with the British accent — as do her two cohorts — the movie perks up whenever she's on-screen.
Ledger valiantly throws himself into battle, looking manly even when being dragged by a camel, but this is an action hero's role, rather than an actor's — he's fine, but we're so busy taking in the battles and the sandstorms that the performances feel secondary. And Bentley — wearing a vast amount of dark eyeliner, presumably purchased at some desert drugstore — shows little of the promise of "American Beauty." He's a third wheel here, and little more.
The battle scenes, often filmed through an elegant smokescreen of sand, are technically impressive but start to feel endless — and a decision, near the end of the film, to show them in slow motion doesn't help. Red-coated British soldiers yell "Sir!" with perfect diction; horses and riders fall dramatically into the sand. It's beautifully done, but there's not much of a point to it — "The Four Feathers" is a diverting yarn, rather than a serious war film. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing wrong with hoping for something a little fresher next time.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com.