Welcome to the British Empire at the turn of the century. Meet a group of jolly lads who are about to be shipped off to the Sudan to fight for queen and country. Say hello to Lieutenant Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger). He's a chicken--in the cowardly sense not the egg-laying feathered sense--and when he resigns his commission with the British army on the eve of his regiment's departure for the Sudan his friends and fiancée give him four white feathers to tell him they know he's a coward. Thirty minutes into the film we don't know exactly why Harry is afraid to go to war or why the British are in the Sudan in the first place. Two long hours later we remain in the dark. We have however seen Harry trot off to the Sudan to overcome the shame of his cowardice pose as an Arab and try to protect the members of his former regiment in secret. We've seen Harry protect an enslaved native princess from the overseer's whip. We've seen him save lives in the film's big battle scene where the British greatly outnumbered fight valiantly and with requisite stiff upper lip against the "Mohammedan fanatics" who set upon them in true Braveheart fashion. Since all these events happened way back then "over there " apparently we don't need any more historical context than that and if we do need it we sure don't get it.
The sweeping saga of The Four Feathers which has been remade no less than five times theatrically (in 1915 1921 1929 1939 and 2002) and at least once for TV (1977) makes huge demands on the actors: Ledger must go from a polished drawing-room charmer to a scruffy desert nomad and back again while Wes Bentley who plays Jack Durrance Harry's best friend and constant champion (no feathers from him) must start as a heroic young officer and evolve into a wounded veteran of foreign wars. It requires a versatility that both young actors strive to fulfill but unfortunately they're still a little too wet behind the ears to pull it off. Ledger comes closest but his drawing room persona lacks charisma and his love scenes with Hudson are completely ridiculous. Once the action moves to the desert though it's clear why Ledger is on the brink of superstardom. He really sinks his pearly whites into the character even executing a pretty amazing jump onto a fast moving horse (either that or the CGI is much better than average). Bentley on the other hand carries the film's early scenes but a lackluster finish turns the strong character he'd begun to build into a wispy cliché. The most effective performance comes from the oft unsung Michael Sheen (Othello Wilde). As the feather-giving soldier Trench Sheen shows more subtle skill than the rest of the cast as he goes from a jolly lad to a broken prisoner of war. Djimon Hounsou is also good as Abou Fatma a former slave who befriends Harry in the desert and helps him protect his friends. Kate Hudson is hardly worth mentioning as Harry's love interest Ethne; she's barely there in this picture.
Four Feathers Four Feathers how do I hate thy plot holes? Let me count the ways. First of all there's the gaping maw in the movie's entire premise--Harry's cowardice goes completely unexplained from start to finish. In fact when Abou asks him why he resigned his commission (Abou though born and raised in the Sudan was a scout for a British general and therefore conveniently speaks English) Harry responds "I just--there are many reason why. Mostly I was afraid." We know that mate. Then there's that pesky fourth feather. The first three come in a nice little box nestled in with three calling cards belonging to Harry's fellow soldiers. The next time we see the feathers in Harry's hand though there are four of them. We find out about 45 minutes later that the final feather came from Ethne. Was a potentially stirring scene lost on the cutting room floor? We may never know. Plot holes aside there are some beautiful painterly shots that show director Shekhar Kapur's promise but there are some appallingly amateurish moments too especially the extreme close-ups of Ledger for no apparent reason and a scene that has Hudson speaking key lines while she's out of focus and in the background of the shot.