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Feathers still flies

Age-old themes and directing keep 1902 story aloft

Among the multitudes of books adapted for the screen, A.E.W. Mason's 1902 novel, 'The Four Feathers,' has achieved a kind of venerability. No less than six adaptations of the tale precede director Shekhar Kapur's latest version.

The story's popularity is easy to understand. It offers a full complement of timeless themes Ñ heroism, cowardice, friendship, redemption, love and war Ñ in service to an exotic and romantic epic. It is truly, as they say, a ripping yarn.

Set in the late 19th century, when the sun never set on the British Empire, the story focuses on Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger), a young British Army officer about to be married when his regiment is called up for duty in the Sudan. Having joined the army only to uphold a long-standing family tradition, Harry doesn't subscribe to nationalistic or militaristic sentiments and would prefer a future of wedded bliss to one of sandy battlefields.

Harry resigns his commission, but on the eve of his regiment's sailing for North Africa, Harry is sent four white feathers, symbols of cowardice. Three are from close regimental friends. The fourth comes not from his oldest friend and colleague, Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley), but from Harry's fiancee, Ethne (Kate Hudson). Already troubled, Harry is now tormented by his choice and finally sees only one way out. He will travel to Africa by himself and fulfill his obligation to his friends.

As directed by Kapur ('Elizabeth,' 'The Bandit Queen') and photographed by the excellent Robert Richardson, 'The Four Feathers' is old-fashioned in the best sense. The filmmakers respect the tale and tell it with feeling, trusting the audience rather than catering to some target demographic. We aren't forced to suffer any hip irony or post-MTV jackhammer action filled with laughably anachronistic Hong Kong/'Matrix' moves.

Kapur clearly relishes the scope of the story and thoughtfully interweaves the themes of self-discovery, loyalty to friends versus patriotic duty, combat realities versus jingoistic notions of glory, triangular romance and social tyrannies that provide its texture.

Richardson contributes rich, elegant imagery in largely monochromatic tones, so that reds emerge more vibrantly and the desert landscapes appear strangely but intriguingly cold. Only a slight sense of abbreviation for the sake of pacing, felt in some rushed transitions (especially a crucial one near the end), keeps the film from achieving a full-bodied classic grandeur.

And there's the cast, long on youth appeal but short on the kind of presence that lends gravity. There's nothing wrong with its work (Ledger suggests, in appearance and delivery, a young Richard Harris); they simply don't swing the weight for an epic. The actor who best measures up is Djimon Hounsou, of Spielberg's 'Amistad,' as a former slave who befriends Harry. Kapur seems to acknowledge his power in the film's final images.

Perhaps even the best-intended modern sensibilities have trouble fully embracing a particular tradition of which this story is part. But if this 'Four Feathers' doesn't depose the 1939 Korda Brothers production as the classic adaptation, it finds a way to give vivid life and even a contemporary relevance to the period piece. It offers spirited proof that this 100-year-old warhorse can still make the charge.