John Madden’s filmization of Louis de Berniers’ novel about the romance between an Italian officer and a betrothed local woman on an occupied Ionian island during World War II has the great virtue of having been filmed on Cephallonia, the locale that inspired the author to write his epic-length book in the first place, and the result is voluptuous and visually entrancing. “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” shares with the 1991 Oscar winner “Mediterraneo” a setting so gorgeous, so radiant, that at times the impact is almost blinding, and always striking. And the cinematography of John Ball captures the scene with unerring precision.
Unfortunately, neither the script nor the lead performances match the breathtaking background. It’s not surprising, of course, that the multi-stranded narrative of the original has been radically simplified to fit the perimeters of a two-hour feature: much of the historical context has been omitted, and one major story thread (that involving Corelli’s colleague Carlo, who fought in Albania, in whose voice many of Berniers’ chapters are related, and who’s instrumental in the captain’s survival when the Italians turn against their German allies) is largely eliminated. Even the relationship between Pelagia and her father Iannis, which in many respects is the heart of the book, has been shunted to the side in favor of the love story. (And the denouement, which spans decades in the novel, has been squeezed into a much shorter time-frame.) What’s problematical is that the process of reshaping and abbreviating results in a storyline that misses much of the depth and texture of its source. The book had ample room to develop larger themes of history and identity below its episodic surface, but the film has to excise such loftier ambitions, along with the literary grace notes that concealed their obviousness, in favor of something more concise but also far more banal.
Casting miscalculations in most of the leads amplify the problems. The exception is John Hurt’s performance as Iannis, which manages to embody the character’s mixture of ruggedness and sensitivity even though his role as the virtual personification of the island’s history has been lost in the translation. It helps that Hurt uses his voice with a musician’s dexterity; his moustache looks wonderfully authentic, too, and makes him fit in extraordinarily well with the largely Greek supporting cast. But Penelope Cruz lacks the luminosity that Pelagia needs to have; as her name implies, the character should sparkle with the lightness of the sun reflecting off the sea’s surface, but Cruz comes across more like a pallid stream. Even more miscast is Christian Bale as Mandras, the intended of Pelagia who goes off to fight in Albania and later becomes a leader in the resistance on the island. Bale is an excellent actor, but he’s far more persuasive in roles requiring subtlety and control (as his turn in “American Psycho” so brilliantly demonstrated). Mandras is essentially a ruffian, and should have been played by someone with the animal intensity of a young Anthony Quinn. This Bale can provide only in the most studied sense.
But the crucial mistake is Nicolas Cage’s Captain Corelli. Star voltage might have been needed to get the picture made, but despite his Italian heritage, Cage is utterly unconvincing as the dreamy, music-and-Pelagia-obsessed officer. It’s a pity that after such early promise in films like “Vampire’s Kiss” (1989) and “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995), Cage has apparently decided to depart his niche as a character actor in favor of really dumb action flicks like “Con Air,” “The Rock” and “Gone in Sixty Seconds” and sentimental slush like “The Family Man.” His turn here is less meretricious than those, but it’s really no more successful. It’s almost a caricature of the flamboyant, arm-waving, gleefully exuberant Italian so familiar from other movies; in its overemphatic earthiness it rivals Charles Laughton’s disastrous effort to portray the gregarious California grape farmer who takes Carole Lombard as his mail-order bride in “They Knew What They Wanted” (1940). This kind of “whatsamatta” exuberance was dated sixty years ago; in the new millennium it’s positively anbtediluvian. And it pretty much sinks the picture.
It’s easy to see what Madden, a talented filmmaker (as shown not only by “Shakespeare” but by the earlier “Mrs. Brown”) was striving for here: a sweeping romantic epic along the lines of “The English Patient.” But Anthony Minghella’s 1996 picture, despite the widespread acclaim it received, was also a failed attempt to capture the essence of a complex, multi-layered novel, and “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” proves even less successful. See it for its beautiful setting and lush photography, perhaps, and for the excellent craftsmanship apparent in every frame. But a variety of flaws–most notably Cage’s tone-deaf performance–render it earthbound when it should soar. Despite the care lavished upon it, this “Mandolin” is decidedly out-of-tune.