THE AMERICAN practice of remaking European film successes, usually with inappropriate stars and a coarsened texture - which has brought us such joys as Pardon Mon Affaire and Three Men and a Baby, not to mention the impending Vanishing and, if it ever happens, Jane Fonda in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown - is generally so pernicious that it is almost a painful duty to announce that Sommersby improves on its original. Daniel Vigne's The Return of Martin Guerre was over-praised, admittedly - for a story of love and death it was all rather flat, and groups of peasants had a tendency to burst into ribald laughter for no better reason than that this was rural France in the 16th century - but its central theme was unusual enough to persuade many viewers they were watching a profound meditation on human identity.
A man returns to his home village after a number of years and is accepted by everyone, including his wife, as the person he claims to be. It is only later that doubts arise about his identity. This is a situation that alternates oddly in the mind between seeming utterly preposterous and so plausible it's a wonder it doesn't happen every day, and the makers of Sommersby have worked hard to embed it convincingly in a time and place that might be thought more hard-headed than 16th century France - rural Tennessee, immediately after the American Civil War.
Laurel Sommersby (Jodie Foster) even has a photograph of her missing husband, Jack, but she hardly looks at it when he turns up. She accepts his return as her fate. In the original film, the missing man had been off 'at the war', but it was not a war that disturbs the prosperity of his home village. In the era of Sommersby, war is total and has left its mark on every aspect of the land and the community. When everything looks different from the way it was six years ago, why single out the changes in Jack Sommersby? And why would anyone want to impersonate him, when he is returning only to devastation?
For Sommersby to be based on The Return of Martin Guerre and nevertheless to acknowledge a separate contribution for 'story' (Nicholas Meyer and Anthony Shaffer) as opposed to 'screenplay' (Meyer and Sarah Kernochan) may seem redundant, but the revamping has been thorough, not just a matter of replacing candles with oil lamps. Clumsy structural elements, such as unnecessary flashbacks and a voice-over, are faults in the original that have been remedied in its new incarnation.
There are also, inevitably, new meanings. The core theme of the new film is thoroughly American: second chances. The historical period in which it is set, technically, is Reconstruction, and it isn't just the hero who takes a chance on remaking himself. The town must find a new crop to replace the cotton that has so depleted the soil, and the venture that Sommersby proposes - tobacco farming - requires some temporary socialism of a private-enterprise sort, since everyone must form a co-operative if they are to afford the tobacco seed that is so much more valuable than gold dust. The races, meanwhile, must find new ways of dealing with each other, after the trauma of Emancipation.
Sometimes it seems that the new script is actively showing off, taking a stock scene from Martin Guerre and giving it an enriching twist. So there is a fight in a barn in each film, but in the French original it is a standard Scuffle With Self-Sacrificial Female Intervention (when Nathalie Baye shields Gerard Depardieu with her body). In Sommersby the barn in which the fight takes place is elevated almost to the status of a character. Unless the tobacco can be properly dried, there will be no saleable crop, and Sommersby's attacker - the man who would have married Laurel if her husband hadn't returned - has a flaming torch in his hand. Even in a scene of violent action, the hero's fate is closely bound up with his community's.
When Richard Gere made his film debut 15 years ago, in Days of Heaven, he looked quite wrong in a period American landscape (that film was set in the early years of this century). Even his walk was anachronistic, inherently a post-Brando, post-Dean mode of motion. Since then, he has both mellowed and hardened interestingly. He's still quite capable of coasting handsomely through films both low- brow and high-brow (Pretty Woman, say, and Kurosawa's Rhapsody in August), but he has also extended the range of his persona in both directions, towards steeliness and playful warmth.
His role in Sommersby shows him at his warmest. The loss of moral ambiguity that distinguishes the new film from its original works in his favour, by giving his character a clear heroic outline. The same tendency works to diminish the role of the heroine, since without a taint of duplicity she comes close to the stock figure of the woman snatching at happiness when she has the chance. How could it be wrong to give herself to this man so different from the unloving husband who went away, this New Man of the Reconstruction? Foster puts her all into the part, but can't quite make anything of it. These days, she's becoming a little mannered in face and voice at moments of crisis. She produces a fine, firm tremor and a drop into anguished whispering at the end of sentences, both of which are damagingly familiar from her earler work.
Director Jon Amiel has yet to come up with anything in the cinema to match his work on The Singing Detective, but Sommersby should certainly consolidate his position in Hollywood. His direction is full-blooded and unafraid of sentiment, but he reins in the film's epic possibilities, which could easily have bogged things down. The crispest single scene is of a tobacco auction, where bids are made by an incomprehensible knot of money men, murmuring parasites of capital who pass over the pile of the village's sample product and on to the next - leaving them completely in the dark, until they pick up the slip of paper that has mysteriously appeared on the pile of leaves, about whether they have harvested a triumph or a disaster.
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