Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001)

D: John Madden
S: Nicholas Cage, Penélope Cruz

Romantic drama based on the novel by Louis de Bernières set on a peaceful Greek island during the second world war. Living provincial lives amid the bucolic splendour of an idyllic isle kissed by the Mediterranean sea, the lives of local doctor John Hurt, his intelligent, beautiful daughter Penélope Cruz, and would-be suitor Christian Bale are interrupted by the advancement of Axis troops from Abyssinia to the Greek islands. Bale, after a hasty betrothment to Cruz, heads off to fight. Cruz in turn waits helplessly for the return of her suitor though her father warns her that a person must always be braced for change. He himself prepares pessimistically but opportunistically for the inevitable arrival of invading troops. The twist, if such a term is appropriate in this genre, is that the invaders turn out to be cheerful, ebullient, and relatively benign Italians. Their interest in the island seems more in its splendid south facing aspect and sandy beaches than its military or strategic possibilities. One among them, artillery captain Nicholas Cage, speaks Greek, and so becomes among the leading voices of the invaders with the locals. He takes up residence with the doctor and her daughter, dividing his time between his much-loved army opera society and trying to win the respect of hostile Cruz. Inevitably, romance blossoms, complicated by the return home of a wounded and now much darker Bale and the eventual escalation of Nazi troops on the island as it becomes clear the Italians have little taste for conquest.

It is clear from the opening scenes that the entire movie is going to be filtered through the rose-scented perspectives of the romance genre. The beautiful locales, the affectionate, eccentric peasants, and the worldly-wise metaphoric portents about earthquakes spouted by a wonderfully craggy Hurt all signal an engagement with the past in which few questions will be asked of its veracity. This is a setting for a story which will embrace and celebrate this locale, shedding tears along the way for its ill-treatment no doubt, but with an eventual assertion of its timelessness and endurance which echoes the love two people will inevitably share. This makes it not so much one for the boys as one for the girls, or perhaps those boys with a spot of romance in their hearts.

In spite of its WWII setting, this film is only a distant relative of the likes of Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, and U-571. It is perhaps a little closer in some respects to Pearl Harbour insofar as its romantic story definitely takes precedence over scenes or themes of combat and warfare; but it is everything in that respect that Pearl Harbour only pretended to be. Captain Corelli's Mandolin is an authentic romantic melodrama in which war really is the backdrop: it is not an action movie dressed up as a romance to appeal to a wider demographic. As such the film works well within the frames of reference of a romantic story, but it lacks punch when it attempts to probe a little deeper into the horrors of war. When it tries to use war as the hand of fate which tears its lovers apart it fails to generate the necessary sense of respect and fear of warfare itself to give it weight in terms of social or historical discourse. Whatever heft the novel may have had in its own right on this level, the film has taken the simplest route through questions of ethics, nationality, colonialism vs. colloquialism, duty vs. revenge, partisan vs. collaborator, etc. Anything deep is in the footnotes. Though not as cold and distant as The English Patient, the film plays a similar risky game with the schism between the written word and the cinematic image, finding it hard to imbue the latter with the complexity often easy to the former even when the story is so generic. Luckily, Captain Corelli's Mandolin is more intentionally lightweight than The English Patient though, so it doesn't grate on the nerves with self-seriousness in an attempt to suggest it is deeper than it appears.

Once the viewer accepts that Captain Corelli's Mandolin is never going to get to grips with the historical material in the context of history itself, it is relatively easy to sit back and and enjoy the execution of narrative and character development. Again there is no real point in engaging with the characters as real people, or even as representatives of the real, and so we simply accept the all-singing, all-dancing Cage as a happy and well meaning man who happens to wear the uniform of the Fascist Government of Mussolini's Italy, and we simply buy the intelligent and capable Cruz' willing acceptance of her provincial life and generally doltish native boyfriend (even though she allegedly wishes to train to be a doctor like her father). We don't bat an eyelid at sagelike Hurt's continuous thematically significant stretches of 'fatherly advice', and we even don't find ourselves frustrated by the thickly laid-on symbolism of Cage's all-important Mandolin, the strings of which will later patch the wounds he receives when the Nazis turn against their former allies.

To be fair, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) has done a solid, workmanlike job with the film. Cage (Face-Off), Cruz (Vanilla Sky), and Hurt are all just right in their roles. Cage is full of the joys of life in a way which could very easily have tipped into Roberto Benigni-like sentimental clowning but does not (mostly). Cruz is full of smouldering fire which seems to be held in check by hatred before brimming up with passion later on. Hurt is entertaining as an old man who knows how to take advantage of a situation without compromising himself. The actor's ability to portray sternness without giving way to poker-faced implacability is central to making the character work. Bale (American Psycho) is not bad, although he is latterly given to dark, brooding looks which are meant to carry more weight than the character really generates in the absence of a stronger sense of political context. It is little surprise that he eventually quite literally wanders off into the night to be forgotten by the story. Shawn Slovo's script is, as noted, not particularly rich, but it holds pace almost all the way through. It loses its grip only in the final ten minutes or so when the action accelerates exponentially to bring the film to a close and prevent the audience from spending too long waiting for the romantic resolution they expect from page one. John Toll's cinematography brings out the best in the pastoral setting and Stephen Warbeck's score keeps the emotions brimming not too far under the surface so that they can be called up to underscore the big moments.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.