'Sommersby' moves in knowing ways

February 05, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

He's a soldier from the wars returning, with that grace and wariness that constant exposure to mortal danger confers; the webbed lines of tragic wisdom pressed into the flesh around his eyes testify to the rigors of the battles he's survived and the long stay in a POW camp that followed.

She's his wife, six years parted from him and now she has to learn to know him again, perhaps even love him. Imagine her surprise when she determines that he's not the same man that left her: he's better -- stronger, kinder, smarter, more just, braver. But while every moral virtue has grown . . . why has his shoe size shrunk two measures?

If "Sommersby" sounds familiar, that's because it's an uncredited remake of the Daniel Vigne's great "The Return of Martin Guerre" of 1982, with Gerard Depardieu as the haunted veteran of some forgotten European war. So, like "The Vanishing," it's an American remake of an excellent foreign film. Yet this big-budget American version is far from a disgrace: it has the same slow sense of human mystery and deep passion as the original. And it has the courage to confirm to the original contours of the story and not "fix" it for an American audience. In other words, it respects its audience, rather than holding it in contempt.

Of course for the story to work, it must be nestled somewhere in a past before the mechanical contrivance of a camera could freeze a likeness forever, and the only check on a person's appearance was the imperfect eye of memory. Clearly, this was possible in the French version, set in a vague Middle Age; Jon Amiel's version is set in Tennessee in the second year following the Civil War, in a bleakly beautiful mountain valley that has been ravaged by Yankees and is only now, two years after Appomattox, beginning to pick itself up from ruin.

Instead of Depardieu's lumpy decency, we get Richard Gere's silkiness. But the fundamental goodness of Jack Sommersby is not beyond Gere's reach: Gere seems less narcissistic and aware of his beauty. His Jack is a Tennessee aristocrat who once led the town in hell-raising and masculine cruelty. He only made love to his wife when he was drunk. His attitude toward the African-Americans who were his slaves was typical of the age. His sense of mastery of the physical universe was complete.

But the new Jack has been softened and made almost New Age. (His social liberalism is a bit hard to believe, given the time and place, and seems more calculated to win box-office points than to achieve any standard of reality, but let that pass.) When he resumes the aristocrat's leadership role, it's to find the path to salvation for his community. (It's the rare American movie that has agriculture as a background.) He stands for redistribution of wealth, racial equality and the guts to stand against the Klan.

But most important, he is capable of love. And love is the force that drives the movie. Jodie Foster is the young wife and the Gere-Foster coupling yields surprising resonances. She's happily given up on playing working-class slatterns as she did in "The Accused" and "Little Man Tait" and is able to give full expression to the penetrating intelligence that is so obvious in interviews with her.

Of course Jack's virtue makes him a target; even as he has saved his community, some in it hate him and work to bring him down. Is he the real Jack Sommersby? The faint possibility that he might not be also galvanizes his enemies -- but of course the movie is interested in the central question of identity. Is a man his name or is he his soul? Can a bad man have a good life if he reinvents himself in the name of another? What, really, is a "name" anyway.

In the end, Jack must decide whether to die in virtue or live in sin. It's a choice American movies almost never contemplate; they take the sin without argument. I think a long last reel %J courtroom scene isn't quite as brilliant as the filmmakers seem to think it is -- there's both too much of it, and not enough -- and the movie sometimes seems to drag. But still, unlike most American movies, it aims for the heart and the brain, not the glands and the privates.

"Sommersby"

Starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster.

Directed by Jon Amiel.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13.

***

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