"Shakespeare in Love" director John Madden returns to the big screen with "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," yet another character-driven romance. Succulently shot on the Greek Isles, this adaptation of Louis de Bernieres' 1994 novel "Corelli's Mandolin" represents the kind of good, old-fashioned melodrama that rarely makes it to the megaplex anymore. And while some would argue there's a reason for that scarceness, others will cheer its lushly romantic arrival.
Although Bernieres' sweeping epic enjoys near-cult status in the United Kingdom, where it's estimated to nestle in one out of every 20 British homes, it didn't make much of a ripple with us cynical Yanks. Though the novel was considered "unfilmable," much in the same manner as "The English Patient," Madden seems more than up to the challenge. His only misstep seems to be casting Nicolas Cage as the Italian hero in the title.
Suffering from a raging case of "Streep Syndrome" as well as an early over-the-top take on his character's joy for life, Cage at first comes close to single-handedly sinking this buoyant love story. But he soon calms down and seems more comfortable living in Corelli's skin.
The movie opens on the eve of World War II in Greece. The year is 1940 and on the idyllic island of Cephallonia, life continues as usual. Part of that ebb and flow of life is the courtship of Pelagia (Penélope Cruz), the daughter of the island's physician, Dr. Iannis (the remarkable John Hurt), and Mandras (Christian Bale), a fisherman. The two announce their engagement on the day before Mandras must go to war. Although he vows to write to her, Pelagia hears nothing; her numerous letters go unanswered.
During this time, the island comes under Italian occupation and Capt. Corelli is billeted in Dr. Iannis' home. The opera-loving, mandolin-playing Corelli is not what either the good doctor or his lovely daughter expects. As happens in all great romances, Pelagia and Corelli fight their mutual attraction until, of course, the worst possible time. Here, they finally admit their love for one another just in time for Mandras to return. But the lovers' personal moral dilemma is overshadowed by a larger one: When Mussolini surrenders to the Allies and the Germans move in to take over the Italian occupation, do these lover-not-fighter Italian soldiers give in, or do they fight alongside the Greek rebels?
For the most part, Shawn Slovo's script stays faithful to Bernieres' book, but it lacks both vision and scope when it tries to replace or rework the author's complicated mix of love and war, music and honor, courage and selfishness. It's actually a good 90 minutes before the conflict really affects the characters, since Slovo's script sacrifices the bigger picture in favor of the central love story and the personal journeys of a fistful of characters.
Cruz is sweet in her '40s frocks and credibly undone by her burgeoning affection for Cage's quirky, sensitive soldier. Cage, despite that unfortunate need to Speaka da English like one of the Marx Brothers, is appropriately lovable and impassioned. Top acting honors, however, go to Hurt. Successfully piecing together both the narrative and the characters around him, he delivers his most affecting portrayal since "Love and Death on Long Island." Hurt fills his character and the screen with his customary formidable flair.
While one wishes for a little more heat between Cruz and Bale, and then Cruz and Cage, there's enough love in "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" to satisfy dyed-in-the-wool romantics. And once the war kicks in and Madden gets to underscore the story's message of man's inhumanity to man under the guise of war, even the most-hardened hearts can pull out the hankies without feeling compromised. While lacking the visceral impact of "Saving Private Ryan," Madden's scenes of brutality happen suddenly and shockingly.
But the glue that holds the movie together and the reason most will pony up nearly 8 bucks at the box office is the romance. As such, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" is an acceptable confection that looks good and has some tasty moments. A little more fine-tuning, though, could have made this romance sing.
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