Though director John Madden didn’t carry home an Oscar in 1999 (he lost to Steven Spielberg), his film “Shakespeare in Love” did, beating out odds-on favorite “Saving Private Ryan.” Now the British helmer has followed up that triumph with a filmization of Louis de Bernieres’ epic 1994 novel “Corelli’s Mandolin,” a popular, well-regarded book which weaves together historical, romantic and philosophical elements in a story of a love affair between an Italian captain and a Greek girl on an occupied Ionian island during World War II. The film stars Nicolas Cage as Corelli and Penelope Cruz as the beautiful Pelagia, with John Hurt and Christian Bale lending support as Pelagia’s father and her betrothed.

Madden noted during a recent Dallas interview that he wasn’t the first director attached to the project–originally Roger Mitchell (“Notting Hill”) was scheduled to bring the work to the screen–but when Mitchell fell ill, he was recruited to take over and immediately agreed. It wasn’t just a matter of assuming the reins on a film that was well underway, however. Only Cage had been cast–Madden described him as “the element that essentially turned the film from a theory to a fact”–and the director took a primary role in choosing the remaining actors and revising the script. “I went back to square one again,” he remarked, “because the book is a mammoth piece with an enormous number of narrative strands in it, and you need to fight your way through it yourself, I think, in order to be able to possess the film–or take command of it, anyway.” Madden considered it an odd sort of benefit to have read the first draft of the screenplay before tackling the novel: “I had the advantage of coming to the book not as a book but as a source for a screenplay. I actually read a script before I read the book, and I found the script very problematical but completely intoxicating. And I was then dazzled by the book. And then I put the book down. If I spent too long with ut, I started to feel paralyzed. You have to walk away and create a different version of something in your head that sits alongside the mother-ship, as it were.” He also felt acute pressure from the production schedule, already established when he came aboard. “The book is so full of extraordinary ideas,” he mused when thinking about parts of it he had been forced to omit. “But I didn’t have four years to wrestle this beast to the ground.” He added: “I was in a red-hot crucible most of the time I was working on it, because you had a clock ticking.”

It helped that Madden was able to persuade the financiers to make the film in the actual locale where the story is set, Cephallonia. Originally they balked, but the choice proved a good one. “Actually, it turned out to be economically advantageous, but on paper it didn’t look that way,” he said, smiling. And for him the artistic benefits were enormous. “The island is such a character in the story that to be able to make [the film] where it actually happened is a gift to begin with,” he explained. “It allows you to create a quite literal relationship between things. It allows a film to take on a fluidity and a reality that you normally achieve through cinematic sleight-of-hand and grammar.” He also cast all but the leads with Greek performers (including the legendary Irene Papas), some of them local islanders–“faces that carry such an extraordinary sense of history with them,” as he put it. “You cannot find faces like that [elsewhere],” he said. “That’s the kind of quality…you wouldn’t be able to generate if you filmed it somewhere else.”

Madden hopes that audiences will respond to the emotional rhythm he tried to capture when transforming the book into a film. “I’m more apt to think of [directing] as sort of painting, but not manipulating,” he mused. “That sounds disingenuous, because directing obviously does involve manipulation as well–you are shaping the material to generate a particular response–but I do trust the actors a lot, and I like behavior that is complex.” In “Corelli,” as in all his films, Madden tried to entice the viewers into the narrative world he’s chosen swiftly: “You’ve got to make people pay attention to a film; you’ve got to teach an audience the language that your film has very quickly, and pull them into a particular relationship with it. You use so many weapons to do that–so many techniques to do that–and it’s just instinct about how you want to tell the story. There’s a golden period at the beginning of any book, film, play when an audience will go wherever you want to take them, where–unless they’re horrendously biased against you for whatever reason, or they hate the actor or they don’t like your work or whatever it is–they will go where you want them to go, they will learn the [film’s] language.” In the case of “Corelli,” he believes that the story’s mixture of lightness and dark will capture the viewers’ hearts. “I think it’s very pleasurable, that experience in a cinema when you are laughing at one moment and then suddenly you’re ambushed by a much more serious emotional target,” he said. The film “demands that an audience fall into it…but if they do, it seems to me that it becomes very persuasive and very involving. It works by stealth rather than by assault.”

“Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” is a Universal Pictures release.