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Captain Corelli fails to strike a chord

By CNN's Paul Sussman

LONDON, England -- It might be one of the biggest movie releases of 2001, but Captain Corelli's Mandolin hasn't exactly hit the right note with critics.

The film, based on the best-selling novel by Louis de Bernieres and starring Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz, tells the story of the Italian invasion of the Greek Island of Cephalonia during World War II.

It went on general release in the UK on Friday, and has received at best a lukewarm reaction from critics, at worst a full-on drubbing.

Angie Ferrigo, of Empire magazine, gave it one of the kinder write-ups when she described it as: "A cinematic box of chocolates -- it looks good and has yummy moments, but leaves you wanting something more substantial."

Other reviewers have been less generous in their verdicts. Andrew O'Hagan, writing in The Daily Telegraph newspaper, called it "a film so soft-headed and hopeless one wouldn't mind hibernating for the summer on the strength of its artistic weaknesses." Europe
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The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw described it as a "droopy, disappointing film," while Paul Ross of The News of the World thundered "This film stinks!", going on to condemn Cage's performance as "about as life enhancing as leprosy."

Most damning of all was Barbara Ellen in The Times, who likened the movie to "a big, colourful, farting balloon," and called John Madden's direction "as wet as a paper bag in a rainstorm and twice as useless." And that's before she really put the boot in.

The mood was best summed up by Leslie Felperin, editor of industry magazine Moving Pictures, who said: "Basically it just looks like a big marketing exercise for Cephalonia."

Publishing sensation

First published in 1994, Captain Corelli's Mandolin was one of the great literary successes of the 1990s.

Set against the backdrop of the Italian occupation of the Ionian Islands in 1941, it uses the love affair between local girl Pelagia (Cruz) and mandolin-playing Italian artilleryman Antonio Corelli (Cage) to explore a wealth of themes such as faith, patriotism, fanaticism and the dehumanising effects of war.

It has to date sold more than 1.5 million copies and clocked up almost 300 weeks in the bestseller lists, although it hasn't been without its detractors (the Greeks in particular were outraged by de Bernieres' negative portrayal of their wartime communist-led resistance).

Movie rights were sold for a reputed $1 million (£690,000) to Working Title Films, producers of such mass-market money-spinners as Four Weddings and A Funeral and Notting Hill (at the end of the latter Hugh Grant is actually featured reading a copy of the book).

Heart attack

From the outset the £35 million ($50 million) production, a joint venture between Working Title, Disney and Miramax Films, was dogged by problems.

The original director, Roger Michell (Notting Hill), had a heart-attack mid-project and was replaced by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love).

De Bernieres himself was reputedly unhappy with the casting of Cage -- he apparently wanted someone "smaller and more lively" -- and said to have not got on with scriptwriter Shawn Slovo.

Co-star Christian Bale, who plays Cruz's fiancé Mandras, was reported to have hated "the food, the weather, everything about Cephalonia," while many Cephalonians were opposed to the film being made on their island because of their antipathy to the original book.

"We are at war with Louis de Bernieres," commented local journalist Lefteris Eleftheratos, 70, in an interview with The Guardian newspaper. "His book is a libel on my country and its people."

Most controversial of all, the narrative and thematic complexity of the original book was ditched in favour of a simple love story between Cruz and Cage.

"Dr. Zhivago is the movie we're making," said producer Tim Bevan in an interview with the Guardian. "It's a big epic romance. The argument over the politics… as dull as ditchwater as far was we're concerned."

'The sort of rubbish people like'

It is this perceived dumbing-down that has attracted most criticism (along with Cage's Italian accent, described variously as "unforgivable" and "seriously unfortunate").

"I think the premise seems to have been to make something gentle and soupy and untroubling," says Jonathan Romney, film critic of The Independent on Sunday.

"I didn't much like the original book, but at least it had some genuine moments of drama and complexity. The film just reduces everything to the most banal sort of love story. You can't take it seriously except on the most simplistic terms."

Felperin agrees. "It was all a bit trite. She's Greek, he's Italian, they're at war but they fall in love. Frankly, it's rebarbative and boring."

The film certainly looks good, and critics agree that whatever they may think or write about it, it is almost certain to do well at the box office.

"I can guarantee it will make a profit," says Felperin. "It's the sort of rubbish people like."

De Bernieres himself, despite the rumours of behind-the-scenes strife, says he is "95 percent happy" with the end product.

"I think the film has got the heart and the book, it's got the spirit of the book," he said in an interview with The Times. "Having seen it five times I've almost forgotten what happened in the book anyway."

It seems unlikely, however, that the film will be sweeping the board at next year's Oscars.

As one reviewer put it: "The fierce devotion that the novel inspires will not, I imagine, be duplicated by the movie."

• Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Official film site

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