As the sixth adaptation of the 1907 novel by A.E.W. Mason, this Four Feathers (from Elizabeth director Shekhar Kapur) presents itself as an Oscar package neatly tied up in ribbons of august production value. No quarrel there. The movie is beautiful to behold and engages one in a sense of epic struggle -- inner and outer -- that's all too rare in Hollywood's hastier productions. The screenplay, by Michael Schiffer (The Peacemaker) and Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove), tends to err on the side of facile (instantaneous alliances, unmotivated shifts of character), but these days it's still relatively powerful stuff. From quaint British estates to blistering Arab deserts, Kapur's direction leans toward Lean, and the combined efforts are appreciated.
The story concerns young, reluctant hero Harry Faversham (Ledger), whose soldiering skills have landed him at the top of his regiment and earned him the esteem of his colorfully named comrades, Trench (Michael Sheen), Castelton (Kris Marshall) and Willoughby (Rupert Penry-Jones). His innate beauty has also attracted the fair lass Ethne (Kate Hudson), who becomes his fiancée no doubt out of jealousy because he's prettier than she is. This romance is carefully appraised by Harry's best friend, Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley), whose ogling is framed in dramatic close-ups just in case we miss the point that he's also quite keen to pluck the English rose.
Life at home for Harry is all about dramatic rugby moves, carefully executed drills and the odd cotillion until -- whoops -- the British siege of Khartoum is met by some understandably rankled "Mohammedan fanatics" (unlike in the 1939 version, they're no longer called "fuzzy-wuzzies"). England requires auxiliary troops delivered stat, and the boy's number comes up. After a long and convincingly grueling night of soul-searching, Harry decides to bugger off, to the grave dismay of his father (who promptly disowns him) and especially to the ire of his trio of second-tier friends, who send him three feathers to shame him for his apparent cowardice. Despite his plea to Ethne ("You're all that matters to me now" -- always a tragic mistake, lads), she, too, detects the trouble with Harry, sending him the fourth feather of wimp-hood that will propel him toward his destiny.
Basically, our hero's destiny involves plot advances so ludicrous that they verge on fantasy. Doubting his own self-doubt, Harry makes his solitary way to Africa to assist his mates, none of whom knows exactly "what a godforsaken desert in the middle of nowhere has to do with Her Majesty, the Queen." En route, Harry goes through what screenwriters may as well call The Trials, including being attacked, made thirsty to the point of slurping camel blood and left for dead in the sand.
Enter Soul Man. Wandering nomad/guardian angel Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou) discovers Harry, realizes that he's wearing more fetchingly theatrical eyeliner than any character since Tombstone, and opts to help him save his friends from the more beastly Muslims. Along the way, the chums laugh and share life's lessons, and only an idiot would miss the opportunity to call this old story's new wrinkle Bagger Vance Goes to the Sudan.
Apart from the overarching sentiment and nagging implausibilities -- Ledger, as Harry, passes as an Arab? -- The Four Feathers has a lot to offer as grand entertainment, from surprising battle sequences (plenty of terror, virtually no gore, brief and tasteful digital enhancement) to fine performances. Ledger is awesome in the role and sets himself a nice new standard, and Hounsou and especially Bentley (whose character suffers most wrenchingly) are superb. Meanwhile, Hudson's role is just another in a series of plums for American princesses (Paltrow, Zellweger) needing to prove how veddy English they can be. This is pretty confusing as Helena Bonham Carter moves to L.A. to play assorted tramps and a goddamned ape, but the wiles of casting directors are likely to remain a mystery for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, when they're on, they're on, and in Ledger they have discovered a formidable talent who can carry a tale of this magnitude.