'Mandolin' plays up sappy romantic fantasy

"Captain Corelli's Mandolin" is perfectly poised to capitalize on the current vogue for World War II movies - or rather it would be, if not for two problems. One is that "Pearl Harbor" has bombed some of the momentum out of that vogue, earning fair returns at the box office but reminding viewers that not every war picture packs the emotional punch of a "Saving Private Ryan."

The other is that "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" is less a hard-hitting war movie than a romantic fantasy, and a regrettably sappy one at that. While it has a fair amount of shooting and killing, its heart is in the ill-starred love affair that dominates most of the plot. This would be fine if the romance were well enough written, directed, and acted to capture our hearts as well. But it isn't, and audiences aren't likely to surrender too many dollars at the ticket window once word gets out.

Nicolas Cage (see interview, page 20) plays a music-loving Italian officer who's garrisoned on Cephallonia, a Greek island where the residents have heard about the war but haven't suffered any real combat yet. There he falls for the lovely Pelagia, an island native (Penélope Cruz) who resists him at first but eventually succumbs to his mischievous yet manly charm, dismaying the simple Cephallonian fisherman (Christian Bale) she's engaged to marry.

Other characters include Pelagia's father (John Hurt), a crusty physician who's weathered enough Cephallonian earthquakes to take the war in stride, and an officer of the German occupying forces (David Morrissey) who seems nice but probably has a sneaky streak.

The movie was directed by John Madden, who swept the Oscars with "Shakespeare in Love" but fails to mine similar gold from the screenplay he's working with here, adapted by Shawn Slovo from Louis de Bernieres's bestselling novel.

While there's nothing wrong with plugging into old Hollywood conventions, how many love-triangle clichés and platitudes about Mediterranean peasants can one movie contain? This picture tests the limits, and, although British audiences have flocked to it, it drew more than one derisive howl from the New York preview.

The actors don't have a fighting chance, given the weakness of the dialogue, and only John Hurt comes through relatively unscathed. Cruz walks through her part. Bale's role is skimpily written. It's a pleasure to see the great Irene Papas as Pelagia's mother, but she's given almost nothing of interest to work with. And while Cage has some fine talents, we now know that singing opera and speaking with an Italian accent are not among them.

Cage will fight World War II again in "Windtalkers" this fall, and perhaps he'll win his actorly battle on that occasion. But the only aspect of "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" that doesn't suffer a decisive loss is its gorgeous Cephallonian scenery.

Rated R; contains nudity and violence.

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