In Love and War

Richard Attenborough’s In Love and War wants to make you swoon, but I’m not sure the movie could muster the energy to swoon. It’s a love story in which the sparks don’t fly so much as trail limply to the ground. The picture is based on Hemingway in Love and War, the 1989 book drawn from the diaries of Agnes von Kurowsky, whose brief, probably platonic love affair with Hemingway during World War I became the basis for his most stirring novel, A Farewell to Arms. Given the thinking of today’s studio executives, it’s easy to see why the Hemingway was dropped from the title: Who wants to see a movie about, you know, some writer? Chris O’Donnell’s performance as the brash, naive 18-year-old ”Ernie” is certainly in line with that logic. Watching this pretty, cocksure kid, who glides through life as if it were a ’90s fraternity mixer, it’s hard to divine even a prophetic glint of Hemingway’s doomy grandeur. Wounded on a battlefield in Italy, Ernie, a Red Cross volunteer, is taken to the hospital and cared for by Agnes (Sandra Bullock), an American nurse who saves his leg from amputation (the Italian doctor who has a crush on her seems all too eager to cut it off). Hemingway announces that she’s going to fall in love with him, and despite the fact that she’s eight years his senior he makes the prediction come true.

You can see what Attenborough was going for: a portrait of the artist as a young preppie. Yet since the story has almost no dramatic thrust outside of the fact that we’re watching Ernest Hemingway, reducing him to a prototypical wise-guy stud sentences the audience to sitting through a vaporously generic wartime romance. Directed with diligent aimlessness, In Love and War proceeds something like this: Boy meets girl, girl nurses boy to health, boy flirts with girl, girl gets sent to the front, boy follows her there, boy and girl make love (once), boy and girl drift apart. The end.

Did I mention that girl barely changes her expression? Sandra Bullock is joyless and recessive here, as if her idea of playing ”period” were to glaze the character over with dignity. Agnes’ motivations remain almost completely obscure, but then, so do Hemingway’s. After returning to the States, he receives a Dear John letter from Agnes, which he responds to by trashing his room — a bit of an overreaction, since what we’ve seen looks more like a summer-camp fling. Eight months later, he’s in a cabin in the woods, growing a beard, drinking whiskey, acting gruff and morose, writing. What happened to the preppie? Why, he’s turned into…Ernest Hemingway. (You half expect him to whip out a cigar and start inquiring about real estate prices in Key West.) The torment of lost love has forged not merely a writer but a prematurely bitter old man. Maybe that’s what actually happened, but In Love and War is so wispy and inept that instead of feeling Hemingway’s pain, I looked at him and thought, Get over it, kid.

In Love and War
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