Running Time: 131 mins
An English period production with a good cast and a fine director should be a recipe for a hit. Unfortunately Four Feathers is as dull as dishwater.
Set in 1898, the grand days of Queen Victoria's Empire, five officer cadets, led by Harry (Ledger) and Jack (Benson) are commissioned to go to the Sudan and fight the local "Mohammedan' insurrection. On hearing the news Harry gets cold feet and resigns his commission. He returns to his fiancé Ethne. Three of Harry's friends, Jack is the exception, accuse him of being a coward, and each sends him a white feather. When Ethne finds out Harry is frightened to fight, she gives him one as well, the fourth feather. Shocked by the admonition, Jack gathers together his courage and sets sail for the Sudan where he becomes a private mercenary and attempts to save his mates.
Four Feathers shows what's best about British period drama: outstanding sets and locations, especially those set at Naval Academy at Greenwich; detailed costumes; a large cast; and a sweeping neo-colonial story against which the love triangle tale is told.
There are some pleasing elements to some of the performances. Heath Ledger's upper class English accent is entirely credible. His army general father, whom Harry calls "Sir', is the epitome of the stern, military parent. But there are an equal number of strange directorial decisions that distract our attention. American Wes Benson's accent is not as convincing as Ledger's. The young Victorian soldiers hug each other a bit too much for it to fit in with the period. In the Sudan Harry meets Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou), an African slave who has such rounded vowels and good command of English grammar, he is worthy of Oxford.
The worst thing by far is that once Harry becomes a mercenary we know when, where and, to a degree, how, Harry is going to save the day. At this point the film runs out of any dramatic tension and emotional pull it had.
With echoes of Gallipoli and Midnight Express, Four Feathers tries to turn Harry of the Sudan into Lawrence of Arabia. Like the campaign, it's a noble failure.
Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the Director of the Australian Catholic Film Office.