Coming off of "Shakespeare In Love," which in many ways reinvented, spoofed or at least paid winking homage to 400 years of romantic clichés, one might think director John Madden would be able to circumvent the kind of highly telegraphed heartstring-pulling that goes on in "Captain Corelli's Mandolin."
But the opening credits have barely faded before this wartime three-hanky flick plunges in with the Harlequin novel melodrama. Mandras (Christian Bale), a brave, passionate, handsome young Greek island lad promises to marry the village beauty named Pelagia (Penelope Cruz) as he goes off to fight the encroaching armies of Mussolini and Hitler. "I don't know how to tell you what's in here," he cries on one knee, pounding a fist against his breast. "But I think...I know...(choke!)...I love you! (Dramatic pause.) Now I leave for war! Come dance with me!"
If you were able to read the preceding direct quote without gagging, boy, oh boy is this your kind of movie -- a soap opera of epic proportions involving Pelagia haplessly falling for an occupying Italian soldier while her lover is off fighting for her and for her country's freedom.
If that quote gave you the dry heaves, you might as well stop reading now. You know everything you need to know about this movie, which was adapted from a popular and well-recieved novel by Louis De Bernieres.
The Italian soldier is Captain Corelli (Nicolas Cage), a sad-eyed, virtuous ("I've never aimed a gun at anybody"), understanding ("It must be very difficult for you to put up with us"), mandolin-strumming (duh), opera-singing officer whose army has commandeered him a room in the house our comely heroine shares with her father (John Hurt), the folksy village doctor.
Immediately smitten, Corelli initially meets resistance from the proud Pelagia. But it doesn't take much to wear her down, and right about the time she's flopping on her back then declaring, "You think you can come here and turn my world upside down?" (through tears of conflicted devotion) -- that's when Mandras returns from the front.
Madden does manage to keep his head above water in this gush of shopworn sentimental drivel, directing Cruz and Cage to emotionally ingenuous (if cloying) performances, despite the fact that neither of them has mastered a convincing accent for their characters. Cruz sticks with her naturally breathy and lyrical Iberian lilt (as long as she has some kind of accent, that seems to be enough for Madden) while Cage sounds like an Italian waiter in a "Monty Python" sketch. And don't even get me started on the scene where he and his regiment perform arias at the beach. I half expected to see Eric Idle come out of the surf and start hitting people with a rubber chicken.
Moments of truth and beauty do surface in this film when it isn't busy being immoderately idyllic, drastically dramatic or unintentionally funny. About the time Mussolini surrenders and the Nazi mercilessly invade (in vaguely violent attack sequences), the hillside flower picking and poetic proselytizing on the nature of love take a breather. Corelli goes against orders and leads his now-acclimated troops in an impossible battle to protect the island against the Germans, ironically fighting side-by-side with Mandras and his band of rebels.
But even when "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" is at its least pandering, its formulaic roots are showing and it's hard not to become distracted by wondering when and how some inevitable tragedy will strike. Will the cute little girl Corelli plays with get killed? Will the freedom fighters take revenge on the pretty villager who flirted with a Nazi? Will one of Pelagia's lovers martyr himself to save her or even his rival for her love?
Blinded by the fantasy of the romance, Madden fails to find anything more than generic depth and complexity to the film's love triangle, even conspicuously and conveniently failing to mention the fate of the brooding Mandras in the picture's epilogue that takes place after the war. With an over-long 129 minute run-time, it shouldn't be too much to ask that the three main characters be drawn on screen deeper than they would be painted on the cover of the maudlin paperback from which they were derived.