Plucking rubbish

Film - Nicolas Cage doesn't pull any heartstrings for Charlotte Raven

If you were going to make a film in which the central character was a voluble, virile bundle of Italian charm and wit, who would you think of to play him? Remember, he has to convince an audience that a woman who despised him as a fascist who had stolen her country would, against her wishes, fall deeply in love with him. He has to be that cute. Got him? OK. Now, the man you had in mind - was he a lumbering, lugubrious American with a screen presence so stolid that no actress can come within 15 metres of him and stay within the bounds of plausibility? No? Well, Nicholas Cage would not have been at the top of my list, either.

There are many things wrong with this version of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, but Cage is the one that jars most. Never comfortable in his skin at the best of times, he looms and lopes around the island, staring blankly at people and things. When he is meant to be in love, this same expression is adjusted to a kind of blurry blankness that clearly signifies ardour, but looks more like the attempt of a drunken man to focus on the road ahead. Even then, he doesn't seem to see anything. When Penelope Cruz is in front of him, he sort of cleaves towards her, as if unsure of where her flesh begins. It occurred to me during one of the most painful love scenes - as painful as it was exquisite in the book - that he might be acting alone on a set in LA, like Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, imagining a woman who was going to be dropped in later.

No doubt there are some stories that would not be greatly damaged by the estrangement of their central characters. Some might even be improved. But it is unforgivable to do this to a book whose chief pleasure is its vivid account of how the attachment of its protagonists is won - how Pelagia and Corelli go from being strangers to antagonists, and then to people overseeing the marvel of the gradual interlacing of their souls. In the film, the romance takes off on one pitch and just sits there. There is no evolution - Cage and Cruz just do the one romantic minuet - and given that she is already won, there is no need for Cage to do anything whatsoever to delight or enchant his beloved.

I wanted to see him try to make her laugh. He does this all the time in the book, and while the things he does to amuse her are less funny to the reader than they would have been to her, they are none the less the starting point for many of the rituals they establish between them. Their relationship is so plausible because, like any real one, it comprises a number of riffs that evolve over time. Thus her initial real annoyance with him becomes, when she is in love, fake annoyance - a parody of the real thing that gives them both enormous pleasure.

Cage can certainly do annoying, but this is incidental. He neither goads nor begs Pelagia as he should, assuming (correctly in this case) that she will love him whatever he does. In this context, his mandolin is superfluous. He doesn't need to show her what kind of man he really is, and neither he nor the director (John Madden) appears to know what to do with the daft-looking thing. When Cage picks it up, he looks like a man holding someone else's baby. Apparently, he did learn how to play it - he must have been pretty busy in the pre-production period, because he also had to learn to speak with an Italian accent. His proficiency in the latter skill probably gives us some clue as to why the mandolin comes out only on special occasions.

Did I mention there's a war on? It is easy to forget, even though, periodically, everyone gets blown to pieces. The excision of politics from this adaptation would not have been a crime if, by some other means, the director had managed to provide a sense of context for the lovers. It would not have been necessary to go into anything like the detail of the book to give the audience some feeling for the forces that dictated the course of Pelagia's and Corelli's affair. A couple of blasts of the World Service every half-hour or so was insufficient to convey the efforts of a people to deal with the fallout from global events. I don't say this because I'm particularly finicky about telling the whole story - that isn't what drama's about, and I wouldn't expect a film like this to dot the i's and cross the t's of historical fact. But what it could have done, even within its own limited remit, is ground the lovers in their reality. This could have been political - but if they were not so inclined, it could have been physical. In the book, Cephalonia isn't a backdrop: it is at the very root of a passion as dusty and sweaty as it would have been in that heat. Throughout the film, I was hoping that Cruz and Cage would come to the point where they finally betrayed some sign of what it felt like to be working in those temperatures. Some chance. Cruz would look composed in the seventh circle of hell, and Cage clearly gets a rub-down every time he raises an eyebrow. Why didn't the director let the environment work on their characters? Cruz's bright white underwear and perfectly pressed summer dresses should have been left on her for more than ten minutes. They should have made her run round the island three times before they even thought about filming a love scene. Then we might have scented sex, instead of the frigid fragrances you suspect Cruz would probably go in for.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin (15) is on nationwide release

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, We Tories must change, or face eternal oblivion