The Four Feathers, London film festival

London film festival

You would expect a colourful, visually striking and not too brain-straining movie to be made out of AEW Mason's The Four Feathers, and that is what the latest adaptation delivers. But we might have anticipated something a little different from Shekhar Kapur.

Kapur is, after all, Indian. And this is, after all, a colonial story set in the 1890s, when the Empire was at its height and even the natives who bowed down to it were considered scarcely civilised. But Kapur resists leavening the tale with much contemporary resonance - except in the matter of casting, where Americans and Australians, mostly young and known for their work in Hollywood films, act alongside the Brits, possibly as box-office bankers.

Mason - a poor man's Kipling - would have agreed with Hilaire Belloc, who once observed of the troubles in the Sudan: "Whatever happens we have got/ The Maxim Gun and they have not." But his tale is as much about the simplistic moral dilemma of Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger) as about battles where the Mahdi fall like bowling pins in the face of superior firepower. (In the book, he is Harry Faversham, but we'll let that pass.)

Feversham is one of a quartet of army officers to be sent out to the Sudan to fight, but he resigns his commission. He never wanted to be in the army anyway. Both his friends and his fiancee Ethne (Kate Hudson), to whom he is now Beau Pest, ostracise him, sending him a box of four feathers - the sign of cowardice. So he feels obliged to make his way there on his own, disguise himself as an Arab and, helped by a noble savage (Djimon Hounsou), do undercover work for his regiment.

The film has a lot of character-building moments, which the actors handle with some aplomb, and a bit of a love story, which they don't, largely because Hudson seems miscast. But its scenery (well shot by Robert Richardson) and the battles give it a lift. These are the moments we wait for in this sort of adventure, and Kapur doesn't let us down.

I'm surprised, though, that he does not have very much to say about the underlying morality of the piece. But perhaps he decided that he couldn't, owing to its hopelessly jingoistic nature. In any case, James Horner's music might have blasted any real subtleties off the screen. Zoltan Korda's 1939 version with Ralph Richardson and C Aubrey Smith still leads the way.

· At the Odeon West End, London WC2, tonight and tomorrow. Box office: 020-7928 3232.

The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and Clarifications column, Thursday November 14 2002

Above we spoke of the Mahdi, as though the word described a people. Mahdi (messiah) was the title assumed by Mohammed Ahmed, the Sudanese leader who captured Khartoum in 1885. We should have referred to the Mahdi's followers.


Derek Malcolm

The GuardianTramp

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