The mandolin in John Madden's new film is both a symbol of romance, as it draws two lovers together, and of war, as its strings are used to literally bind the wounds of battle. But despite a breathtaking Penélope Cruz and almost equally beautiful landscapes, the intrigue in "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" lies in the Italian occupation of Greece during World War II, not in the love story.
A slightly miscast Nicolas Cage, uneasily sporting an accent, is Antonio Corelli, an Italian officer stationed in the isolated country home of Pelagia (Cruz) and her father (John Hurt), the village doctor. Corelli seems more interested in apologizing for the inconvenience his occupation has caused and leading his troops in their amateur musical endeavors than training them for war. But over time, the reality of the war overwhelms Corelli and his men, especially when the Germans turn from friends to foes following the surrender of Mussolini to the Allies.
Corelli is also overwhelmed by his growing love for Pelagia, and he eventually wears down her resistance as she sees his artistry and tenderness, revealed through his mandolin. Madden wisely lets the love develop subtly over time, but even with an intelligently filmed, passionate roll in the hay, the payoff for the slow smoldering affair just isn't there. Even when Corelli is forced apart from Pelagia and chooses his mandolin instead of the obligatory love note to reestablish contact with his lost love, the romance fails to light up the screen as brightly as the fiery German bombs.
The love story fizzles partly because, just as it gets interesting, it is overwhelmed by the far more compelling tale of the German-Italian conflagration. The film's focus is further blurred by other elements screenwriter Shawn Slovo throws in -- a love triangle with Pelagia's fiance (Christian Bale), massacres at the hands of the Germans and even earthquakes. Slovo simply tries too hard to create a war epic and not hard enough to create a believable romance.
The supporting roles also draw attention from the two lovers. Bale's stoicism in the face of loss of love and country is striking, and Hurt's portrayal of the nurturing father too has its touching moments.
But it is David Morrissey, as the Nazi with a heart, who not only gives the most interesting performance but humanizes the enemy to such an extent that he sheds new light upon the psychology of the Mediterranean conflict. That conflict is the highlight of the film and, when combined with the subtly beautiful, if flawed, love story, allows Madden's work to clearly outshine the other big summer movie about a famous World War II invasion.