The Four Feathers is a stiff-upper-lip rouser that poses the question, Can a movie set during the waning days of the British Empire have its colonial cake and eat it, too? And then spit it out for good measure? In this remake of the lively but perilously dated glory-of-England chestnut, Heath Ledger, with his poet’s frown, takes on the tricky role of Harry Feversham, a young Royal Cumbrian officer who resigns his commission after learning he’s about to face combat in the Sudan. Branded a coward, he takes off for the African desert for a journey of redemption, going native in sympathy with the very ”primitives” his former comrades are there to suppress.
It may be an accidental historical parallel that, at times, we seem to be watching a 19th-century version of ”The John Walker Lindh Story,” but the fluke is only enhanced by the weird anonymity of Ledger’s performance: He was a bona fide star in ”A Knight’s Tale,” but here, the moment he shows up in his bedraggled, ”Lawrence of Haight-Ashbury” guise, he all but disappears as an actor. ”The Four Feathers” starts out well, but then it seems to restart, over and over again. We’re supposed to be watching Harry restore his warrior’s code of honor, but the movie is too embarrassed to admit that it’s that very code that resulted in his fellow Brits thinking they could take over the desert in the first place.