Sunlight kisses the Greek island of Cephalonia so tenderly in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, you’ll want to book your next vacation there. In fact, this ad-agency-like adaptation of Louis De Bernieres’ 1994 book-club favorite turns the historical novel into a travel brochure. Which is a problem, since the book is about big stuff like romantic passion, patriotism, moral conflict, and World War II.
The movie, by contrast, is Pearl Harbor for the English Patient crowd — a movie that reduces history, as well as eros, to a postcard.
As directed, with no points for subtlety, by Shakespeare in Love’s John Madden from an empurpled script by Shawn Slovo, the Greek townsfolk in this history-inspired story glow with ethnic pride. Then they dance. Life is hard but photogenic. Put it this way: Handsome Christian Bale plays Mandras, the fisherman who becomes a partisan, and handsome Irene Papas glowers Zorba-riffically as Mandras’ mother.
Then life gets even harder and occasionally tragic: Mussolini sends Italian troops to occupy the island; the mandolin-wielding Italian captain of the title (Nicolas Cage), a Romeo with a fondness for Puccini arias, falls in love with Pelagia (Penelope Cruz), a beautiful Greek maiden; her physician father (John Hurt) worries and philosophizes; Mandras fumes, because Pelagia is his intended; and the spilled blood of war stains the soil of Cephalonia itself.
As with Pearl Harbor, the battle scenes display more ardor than the ”hot” triangular love story. And similarly, Mandolin miscalculates the weight the romantic leads are capable of bearing. Both Cage and Cruz (ever since she’s been hugged by Hollywood, anyway) are such slo-mo creatures, so prone to conveying dampness when they aim for smolder, that the passion between Corelli and his Pelagia is indistinguishable from the affection the captain demonstrates for his mandolin. On this island, theirs is a tourist kind of love.