At the start of teen-Shakespeare adaptation 10 Things I Hate About You, a ditzy schoolgirl ponders: "I know you can be underwhelmed and you can be overwhelmed, but is it possible to ever be simply whelmed?" Well, the director who brought us Shakespeare In Love has finally supplied an answer to that conundrum: yes you can be, because that's exactly what Captain Corelli's Mandolin does to you.
Despite the tourist-friendly scenery, best-selling source material and A-list cast, it's a weepie without weeps and a love-conquers-all tale with no obstacles to overcome. Fans of the book will be annoyed by the ruthless streamlining of the story, while viewers fresh to it will probably enjoy themselves but wonder what all the fuss is about. The startling clarity of the photography makes it extremely pleasing on the eye, but high expectation and terrific production values are balanced against a flat narrative and a nondescript pay-off. All of which leaves you... well, whelmed.
The main problem is the casting of Nic Cage in a role that demands more sensitivity than his mock-Italian bluster. Indeed, the film gets on very well without him, in opening scenes that perfectly establish a peasant lifestyle unchanged for centuries. Then the Italians turn up - gun-shy opera singers with prostitutes in tow and outrageous "It's-a me... Mario! I'm-a loving Puccini an'-a Lambrusco!" accents.
Now, obviously they're meant to be the arrogant, unworthy occupying army, and you're meant to see them as fools. But while the book managed to give them complexity (notably, with the unspoken love for Corelli by one of his men), movies have little time for such back stories.
So after watching these clichéd Italians singing and swimming and singing and drinking and singing and swanning around in their tight uniforms, it's hard to believe that Cage's Corelli is a worthy love match for Penélope Cruz's Pelagia - an intelligent and sensitive woman who's clearly been waiting for someone to free her from the stifling world that is her tiny island. But Shawn Slovo's script doesn't really pull it off: Corelli's no man of the world, he's a fool, and there's just a moment when Cage and Cruz stop hating and start loving. It's never explained how or why, since all he's done is laugh in his typically theatrical, over-the-top way and strum his mandolin.
True, as it threatens to sink to the level of a feeble romance between a naïve village girl and her smarmy lodger, the tone darkens and Captain Corelli's Mandolin becomes a tense war movie shot through with a palpable sense of danger. With the Italians threatened by the Germans due to Mussolini's surrender, the smug smile drops from Corelli's face as the war, and his men's failure to prepare for it, threatens all their lives. At this point, the film at last grips - but it comes as little more than a dramatic moment in an otherwise middle-of-the-road romance.
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By removing the subplots from Louis de Bernière's much-adored novel, the film just becomes as smooth and easy to digest as mashed carrots - and almost as bland. It's a so-so tale of unimpressive love, and only really bolstered by some incredible, beautiful scenery and extraordinary historical events.