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Accent on love

Review: 'Corelli's Mandolin' plays rather sweetly

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- Based on an actual Greek tragedy of epic proportions, which inspired a novel by Louis de Bernieres, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" has finally been adapted to the big screen, with largely positive results.

During World War II the Italian army, with support from its German allies, occupied Greece and her massive chain of islands. When Italy fell to the U.S. Army, the Italians on the Greek island of Cephallonia refused to turn their weapons over to the Germans, correctly predicting that the Germans couldn't be trusted. For nine bloody days the Italians held out before being overwhelmed and then rounded up and executed by their former allies. A reported 10,000 men were murdered.

From this hideous chapter of history came the acclaimed book by Bernieres, and this screenplay by Shawn Slovo, which has been made into a film by Oscar-nominated director John Madden (1998's "Shakespeare In Love"). Superimposed on this historical event is a ill-fated love triangle between a beautiful local island girl, Pelagia (Penelope Cruz), a handsome fisherman, Mandras (Christian Bale), and a soulful Italian soldier, Captain Antonio Corelli (Nicolas Cage).

Life on the idyllic island of Cephallonia is calm, slow and predictable. Pelagia, the daughter of the island's only doctor (John Hurt), is betrothed to Mandras with the approval of his formidable mother Drosoula, played by the legendary Greek actress Irene Papas.

Penelope Cruz and Nicolas Cage star. CNN's Sherri Sylvester reports (August 17)

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Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz star in 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin'

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Director Madden now plays 'Corelli's Mandolin'  

Then the proverbial winds of war gust across their quiet little island. Mandras goes off to war, and the conquering Italian army occupies Cephallonia.

Giving her heart away

The Italians prove to be an extremely easygoing lot, and the German presence on the island is limited to only a handful of soldiers. Soon a tentative relationship begins between the Greek natives and their Italian keepers. Corelli, who would rather play his mandolin and sing opera than fight wars, finds himself billeted at the home of the doctor and his lovely daughter. The attraction is instant, but takes a long time to percolate.

Pelagia had given her hand to a boy, but now she finds, to her surprise, that she's given her heart to a man -- a man wearing the uniform of the enemy.

By now, Mandras has joined the partisans, and as the Americans begin to win the war in Italy, the partnership between the Germans and the Italians on the island begins to fray.

After Italy surrenders to the Allies, Corelli and his men uncover a Nazi plot to send them to internment camps, instead of home to Italy. The men turn on the Germans in a bloody series of battles that culminates in a methodical, cold-blooded massacre of the Italian troops.

(If you're wondering whether Cage's character survives: Remember, this is a Hollywood movie, and Cage charges $20 million per picture. You do the math.)

Uneven acting

With grand themes such as undying love and the ravages of war, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" is the type of movie Hollywood loves to make, but seems to have forgotten how. "Pearl Harbor" had the same elements but failed miserably. "Corelli" fares much better, but it's far from perfect.

Cruz is proving to be worth all the hype. She radiates not only beauty but a sense of wonder and innocence that is perfect for this role. She grows from a love-struck girl to a mature woman and every stage is believable, despite the somewhat limited chemistry between her and Cage.

In a restrained and measured performance Hurt -- a two-time Academy Award nominee -- adds weight and dignity to the proceedings, as does the indomitable Papas in her small role.

Bale is less convincing as the spurned lover. The only growth experienced by his character takes place on his head, as his hair length changes from scene to scene.

Cage, as always, brings his little bag of overacting tricks and treats. Never one to let a character simply be, he always adds quirks, twitches and creepy accents. In "Corelli's Mandolin," Madden mostly succeeds in keeping Cage's gimmicks in check. Moreover, the actor obviously learned to play the mandolin for the role. But his Italian accent seems forced, and at times he sounds like he's reading from the back of a pizza box. This from a man whose real last name is Coppola.

In fact, this film is an entire calliope of accents. Hurt retains his British clip, and Cruz's heavy (but lovely) Spanish intonations are charming but not Greek. Add real Greek and Italian accents (from real Greeks and real Italians), throw in Bale, who doesn't even really try, and the results are uneven at best.

The scenery is spectacular, as is John Toll's cinematography and Jim Clay's production design. The film has a rich visual texture complemented by Stephen Warbeck's compelling score.

"Captain Corelli's Mandolin" isn't perfectly pitched, but it does produce a nice little tune.

"Captain Corelli's Mandolin" opens nationwide on Friday, August 17, and is rated R.

• 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' official site

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