- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2001

The most appealing thing in "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" is the mandolin, which enters slung over the shoulder of Nicolas Cage as its owner, an Italian artillery officer who has ample time for courtship during three placid years of World War II occupation on Cephallonia, an Ionian island. The best single sequence observes Mr. Cage expressing his ardor with a beguiling mandolin composition dedicated to the heroine, Pelagia, a widowed doctor's beautiful daughter and helpmate, played by Penelope Cruz.

The source is a 1994 novel by Louis de Bernieres. Director John Madden, faithful to the book, shot the film on Cephallonia itself, using a town called Sami as the principal location. The cameras are under the supervision of John Toll, who won Academy Awards for "Legends of the Fall" and "Braveheart." Expectations of an enchanted setting should be fulfilled adequately. The melodic and picturesque assets may obscure the fact that "Mandolin" is a histrionic fiasco, as stilted and sappy as miscalculated tear-jerkers ever get.

Mr. Madden, the estimable director of "Ethan Frome," "Mrs. Brown" and "Shakespeare in Love," seems to have drifted into the same trap that ensnared David Lean with "Ryan's Daughter." They grievously overrate love stories that are diminished rather than glorified by an evocative setting and historical backdrop. The Irish coast and World War I seemed to mock lovelorn Rosie Ryan. Cephallonia and the next war put Antonio Corelli and his beloved Pelagia at a disadvantage, although the drastic, pictorially dynamic side of the war makes a very tardy appearance in "Mandolin."

To overcompensate, soldiers in the peaceable Italian garrison that includes Corelli get drawn into hopeless resistance against their German counterparts, taking charge after the fall of Mussolini in 1943. Only an expedient and arguably ill-conceived miracle seems to spare Corelli from the martyrdom awaiting his comrades. However, Mr. Madden and screenwriter Shawn Slovo fail to anticipate the continuity problem that faces them as soon as hostilities erupt on Cephallonia: A scarcity of ominous impressions makes the dire events look like afterthoughts.

We're informed that hostilities have been experienced off-camera. Pelagia's homeboy suitor, Christian Bale as the fisherman Mandras, disappears for several months after volunteering to fight for Greece in the initial Italian and German invasions of 1940. Once he's demoted as a suitor, though, the reality of the war beyond Cephallonia remains remote to a fault.

John Hurt as Pelagia's dad, Dr. Iannis, sounds an absolute humbug while plastering the soundtrack with paternalistic wisdom. The doctor's fatuous note is so overscaled that you get the impression that world events are determined by his narration. The war can neither begin nor end officially until Dr. Iannis makes the announcements.

The dialogue coach, Joan Washington, vouches for her actors as linguistic marvels, but both Mr. Hurt and Mr. Cage sound less than fluent while faking accents. Although Miss Cruz proves a haunting object of desire as Pelagia, she and Mr. Cage remain a lightweight romantic match. Anyway, the spell of the novel may be hard-pressed to obscure the unintentional laughs and amorous lulls.

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