Whenever a major Hollywood studio makes a picture either set in a foreign country or at least containing characters who speak something other than English, the filmmakers are faced with several decisions to make.
Since, for the most part, domestic audiences seem to prefer American or at least well-known English-speaking performers in their movies, that's what the studios usually deliver. Accordingly, even if they're playing foreign characters, they usually speak English since audiences seem to dislike dubbed or subtitled films, notwithstanding the few exceptions such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Life is Beautiful."
Thus, the director and performers in such films most choose whether to have the characters speak in their normal voices or attempt to don whatever the appropriate national accent might be and thus better persuade the viewer that they're watching the "real" thing. Of course, if the accent is wrong or inconsistent, the effect will not only be ruined, but will also draw undue attention to it.
Such is the case in "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," the terrific-looking but only moderately enjoyable adaptation of Louis de Bernièrs' 1994 novel. Set in Greece during WWII, the film not only boasts three different languages - Greek, Italian and German - all mostly spoken in English, but also two leads whose natural and faked vocal work end up being quite a distraction.
For starters, there's Nicolas Cage ("The Family Man," "Leaving Las Vegas"), one of Hollywood's more entertaining performers to watch - even in bad films - attempting to do the Italian sounding thing. While viewers won't have any problem identifying where he's supposed to be from, his accent comes off more like an exaggerated caricature than the real thing.
Penelope Cruz ("All the Pretty Horses," "Woman On Top"), on the other hand, doesn't even seem to attempt to don a Greek accent, and if she has, her thick Spanish sound completely drowns it out. Then there's the odd effect that all writing appears in the native tongue, while certain characters of different countries occasionally can't seem to understand each other - despite their fellowmen speaking English - thus necessitating a translator who, naturally, also speaks in English.
I bring all of that up since such efforts, or lack thereof, are likely to distract the viewer from the proceedings. That's not to say, however, that a great deal of attention needs to be paid to the story - beyond catching certain characters' names - that follows the tried and true formula of romance-during-war plots.
Not being familiar with the original novel, I can't say how faithful this cinematic adaptation is to it, but what's present here won't strain the imagination or heart too much, although one's gluteus maximus is another point altogether. Yes, the film doesn't contain enough substance - despite the historical setting - to sustain its two-hour plus runtime. Nor does its story stray too far from the predictable, and, at times melodramatic and contrived, formula.
Like many war-based romances, this one features the solider (Cage) who arrives in a foreign land, falls for the local, ravishing beauty (Cruz), but then has all of that interrupted when that pesky and bothersome war decides to kick in - sometime after the midway point -- and disrupt things with some fighting, deaths and general mayhem.
Despite the been there, seen that aura and approach playing off the notion of love and war making strange bedfellows, however, there's always the possibility that the film could still be entertaining, engaging and potentially even moving if handled with just the right touch and care.
In such regards, director John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love," "Mrs. Brown") and screenwriter Shawn Slovo ("A World Apart") don't offer anything that will blow away viewers, and one's tolerance for the melodramatic moments and coincidences will weigh heavily on their acceptance and/or enjoyment of what's offered. The moderate "twist" they present is that the soldier is a fun loving, choir conducting, mandolin player rather than a young and naïve or gritty and hardened fellow.
While Cruz's character immediately doesn't like him because he's Italian and she's Greek, few will be surprised that they eventually hook up. However, the catalyst for melting of her icy heart and attitude - namely all of that jovial singing and mandolin playing - will probably strain credibility for all but the most dyed in the wool, romantic diehards.
Such a de-icing, if you will, is all fine and dandy in concept, and there's obviously a native love interest for her that's supposed to be the third leg of the romantic triangle and will presumably generate much of the film's dramatic tension. Unfortunately, the heart melting feels contrived at best and the triangular bit never really comes to fruition in any sort of creative or imaginative way.
Both are also surprisingly lacking in the requisite fireworks one would expect with such a setup. Since many viewers consequently won't believe and/or care about the leads' relationship, the later, near-tragic moments and other such material can't and don't have the emotional payoff that's needed to make the film work its best.
Accents and contrived/melodramatic plot and material aside, the performances are generally decent and make the film relatively easy to watch. As the usually joyous Italian captain who's suddenly faced by the realities of war, Nicolas Cage seems miscast, but does the best with what he's been given to work. Penelope Cruz is as radiant and beautiful as ever, but that accent and the melodramatic material she must shoulder constantly and unfortunately undermine her dramatic efforts.
Despite yet another odd accent, John Hurt ("The Elephant Man," "Midnight Express") fares somewhat better as her character's wise, but occasionally cantankerous father. Christian Bale ("American Psycho," "Empire of the Sun") is nearly unrecognizable as the jilted local suitor - in a role that obviously needed to be fleshed out to a greater extent - while David Morrissey ("Hilary and Jackie," "Being Human") is decent as a compassionate German officer.
Thanks to the work of cinematographer John Toll ("Braveheart," "Legends of the Fall"), the natural beauty of Cephallonia -- where much of the film was shot -- and an attractive cast, the film looks gorgeous throughout, and Madden makes certain to play that for all it's worth. The various war scenes, however, are not as impressive or as believable as those occurring in "Saving Private Ryan" or "Enemy at the Gates," giving the film something of an old-fashioned war movie feel.
Overall, one's enjoyment of this film will ride a great deal on one's acceptance not only of the often strained accents, but also the melodramatic, predictable and occasionally illogical moments that develop during the film's overly long and occasionally rather slow running time.
Some will be swept away - to one degree or another - by what transpires, especially if they're diehard romantics at heart, while others will either be resistant to or simply not buy into what's offered. While not horrible, the film is certainly far from being as good a wartime romantic drama as it thinks it is and/or wants to be. "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" thus rates as a 4 out of 10.