It’s a shame that Djimon Hounsou is so skilled at playing the beefy, loincloth-wearing African sidekick to many a white man. While it could probably be a lucrative career (any day now he’ll make a buddy-flick period piece with Arnold Schwarzenegger), it robs him of talent and cred to constantly be second banana. Even as smoldering slave Cinque in Amistad, Hounsou stood in the shadow of Spielberg, despite being possibly the one actor on earth who has enough raw intensity to put Stevie in his place.
In The Four Feathers, a near-epic drenched in sand and longing, Hounsou appears as the desert savior of Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger), a disgraced British soldier who, shamed by his friends and fiancee, runs off to the Sudan in order to assert his self-worth. It’s never quite clear if Harry goes to the war-torn colony to prove his courage to himself or to his former mates, or if his bravery, because it is not automatically assigned to him via uniform and epaulets, is of a higher sort than his compadres. The story, though, is a good one, with a girl (Kate Hudson), a best friend (Wes Bentley) and plenty of suffering; while the inevitable love triangle is a bit cloying, it all makes sense eventually.
Shekhar Kapur has not made a film since 1998’s Elizabeth, an astonishing dramatization of the rise and fall of Britain’s virgin queen. He uses much the same imagery and overhead camerawork in The Four Feathers, choosing the square as a recurring visual theme — a symbol of strength and protection, constructed of dozens of bodies standing as one, but a symbol at best and not an impenetrable shield. Early on, Ledger and Hudson waltz in the protective confines of the human square, and the subsequent collapse of their relationship is a precursor to a later square that is unable to withstand the aggressive forces bearing down upon it. Kapur is comfortable with the contradiction of the four sides as both prison and cocoon. His characters escape both in the end. Perhaps someday Hounsou will too.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.