Dir: John Madden. UK-US-FR. 2001. 125 mins
While its aspirations and ingredients should ensure a strong release in all territories where the original Louis de Bernieres novel was triumphant, Captain Corelli's Mandolin curiously lacks harmony for a work with music as one of its core values. There is discord between its good intentions and its lack of soul, as well as a clash between the beauty of its Mediterranean setting and the surprising lack of chemistry between its good-looking cast. The sumptuous photography and setting can do nothing but good for the Greek tourist industry - and marketed as a summer-is-coming romance, the picture should perform well. But while Corelli will have solid support from older generations, particularly with readers of the book, word of mouth is likely to convey a lack of heart and legs.
The film is faithful in large chunks to de Bernieres' bestselling novel of life on the occupied Greek island of Cephallonia during World War Two, but has dispensed with the difficulty of its coitus-very-interrupted finale and the problematic sexuality of the gay soldier who sacrifices his own life for Captain Corelli's. Without either, Corelli aims to be a conventional lovers-against-adversity romance and a war-time tale of betrayal and double crossing. But it fails to hit either target squarely.
Instead, Corelli is now the simple story of its eponymous occupying officer, billeted upon knowing country doctor Iannis (Hurt) and his daughter, Pelagia (Cruz). Although she means to hate the invader at all costs, his skills with the mandolin suddenly propel her into his arms at a time when Mandras, her fisherman fiance (Bale), is abroad fighting for Greece. On the same note, Corelli's musical and party-organising skills appear to win over German officer Weber (Morrissey). Whether his talents will have the same effect on audience is another matter. Director John Madden, brought onto the project late after Roger Michell fell ill, might have done well to dispense with some of the knowing lines and the infernal barbershop-cum-Puccini singing of Cage's Italian troupe, and to have instead injected some bawdy humour left over from his own Shakespeare In Love.
The film does well to develop the alternating balance-of-power as the island is first over-run by Italians and then, following the fall of Mussolini, their former allies the Germans. Inevitably this leads to bloodshed and acts of heroism, most notably from Mandras, who selflessly saves his rival in love. But portraying the horrors of warfare in the sunny Mediterranean is a tougher task than, say, Saving Private Ryan, which had the dirt and grime of the Normandy landings at its disposal. By contrast, Mandolin lacks the single focus and allegorical quality of a simpler living-with-the-enemy tale such as the Sicilian-set Malena; nor does it achieve the dreamy poetry of another island romance, Il Postino.
Although he attempts to define a few characters - Cage and Morrissey are seemingly the only soldiers to get lines, while feral child Lemoni exists merely to be pursued - all, without exception, are caricatures. Cardboard cut-out roles leave little room for fine acting, accents are mostly way off the mark and Cage is down to his 8MM range of simplistic emotions, while Cruz is so dull that it is difficult to imagine Pelagia boasting the ambition to become a wartime doctor. Thus the romance between Corelli and Pelagia emerges, like an unexploded shell on the beach, from nowhere. Only Bale and Morrissey manage to rise above the mean, respectively as an illiterate with guts and understanding and as the German captain who is eventually forced to betray friend and fellow occupier Corelli.
Until some two-thirds of the way in, the film is hampered by a lack of pace, tone and variety. Music on- and off-screen is used as a substitute for emotion and story-telling. The battle scenes that follow are brave and the firing squad and hanging sequences particularly effective. Generally, however, the film plays like de Bernieres-lite. As with many films from the successful Working Title stable, it deserves praise for being on the sensitive side of mainstream. But Madden's Mandolin is also on the flat side of resonant.
Prod cos: Working Title Films, Universal Pictures, StudioCanal, Miramax Films; Dist (UK) Buena Vista International: Dist (int'l) UIP (US: Universal Pictures; Aus and Jap: Miramax); Prods: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Kevin Loader, Mark Huffam; Scr: Shawn Slovo, based on the novel by Louis de Bernieres; DoP: John Toll; Prod des: Jim Clay: Ed: Mick Audsley; Music: Stephen Warbeck; Main cast: Nicolas Cage, Penelope Cruz, John Hurt, Christian Bale, David Morrissey, Irene Pappas.