Director: Shekhar Kapur. US-UK. 2002 125mins

The question of whether the world really needs another version of The Four Feathers is convincingly answered by Shekhar Kapur's stirring approach to the venerable tale of Empire and honour. Boasting a strong cast of rising young stars and handsomely captured locations, the classic adventure story emerges as a still potent mixture of epic spectacle and heart-tugging emotion. The current climate of gathering war clouds and the sacrifices expected from a nation's youth adds topical relevance to the tried and trusted story and may help counteract any sense that it is lacking in attraction for a modern audience. Long delayed in post-production, it could surprise its detractors with a plucky showing at the box-office, especially in Europe. The film, which appeared in Gala at Toronto, opens in the US on Sept 20 and in the UK on Nov 15.

Published in 1902, AEW Mason's novel has been filmed on at least five previous occasions, most notably in 1939 by Zoltan Korda. Kapur's version doesn't show quite the same, sharply focused grip on the narrative but is easily the best of the three versions since then. Opening titles emphasis the uncritical patriotism of the Victorian era and the notion that there was no greater honour than to fight for Queen and Country. The audience is then introduced to the boisterous comrades who serve together in the Royal Cumbrian Regiment, among them colonel's son Harry Faversham (Ledger) who has just announced his engagement to Ethne (Hudson). When the regiment is ordered to the front line in Sudan, he resigns his commission. Disowned by his father, he receives three feathers from his erstwhile colleagues as symbols of his cowardice. Ethne provides the four and he concludes that the only way to redeem his honour and self-respect is to make his way to the Sudan, disguise himself as a local and prove himself in the heat of battle.

Screenwriters Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini extend the source material the courtesy of taking it seriously. There is no attempt at post-modern irony or the kind of cheeky liberties that undermined the recent Syglass Entertainment/Kevin Reynolds version of The Count Of Monte Cristo. Instead the gung-ho imperialism of the original is tempered for modern sensibilities with references to the folly of Empire, the senseless slaughter of war and the real sense that the British had no defensible reason for being in Sudan in the first place.

Backed up by reliable British character actors, the international players acquit themselves surprisingly well in the lead roles, adding some flesh and blood vigour to the stiff upper lip attitudes of their class and time. Heath Ledger makes a dashing, rugged hero, Wes Bentley has all the starchy reserve expected of a Victorian British officer and a radiant Kate Hudson is a vision of loveliness as the woman torn between them. Djimon Hounsou also adds a striking presence as Abou, the North African warrior who becomes Faversham's friend and protector.

Always a treat for the eye, Four Feathers is beautifully shot by Robert Richardson, who captures the treacly interiors and opulence of Victorian London with as much conviction as the burning heat of the desert and the dusty chaos of battle. His expressive cinematography is a major asset to a much finer production than its advance reputation might have lead one to believe.

Prod co: Jaffilms
Int'l sales: Miramax Int'l
US dist: Paramount
UK dist: Buena Vista Int'l
Stanley R Jaffe, Robert D Jaffe, Marty Katz, Paul Feldsher
Exec prods:
Allon Reich, Julie Goldstein
Laurie Borg
Michael Schiffer, Hossein Amini based on the novel by AEW Mason
Robert Richardson
Prod des:
Allan Cameron
Steven Rosenblum
James Horner
Main cast:
Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Kate Hudson, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Sheen