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Sommersby

Directed by Jon Amiel. Starring Richard Gere, Jodie Foster, James Earl Jones, Bill Pullman.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Sat., Feb. 13, 1993

Sommersby is an updated American adaptation of a popular French story made in !982 as the film The Return of Martin Guerre. Maybe executive producer and star Gere mis-read the title and thought this project was The Return of Richard Gere. Otherwise I'm at a loss to explain why this medieval tale was uprooted to Reconstruction-era Tennessee in the period following the Civil War. There's a certain naïveté intrinsic to this story which even rural America in the late 1860s seems too sophisticated to buy into. The story begins when Jack Sommersby (Gere) returns home to his family plantation two years after the war's conclusion. Altogether he's been gone for a total of six years. His wife Laurel (Foster) has been eking what she can out of the farm and has promised a family friend Orin (Pullman) that she will marry him if her husband does not return in the next year. Jack returns ready to reclaim his wife, his son and his birthright. His appearance has changed a bit (but war and Yankee incarceration will do that to a man). His memory about certain things is infallible, on other things he draws a complete blank (but war and Yankee incarceration will do that to a man). His dog doesn't recognize him (but the animal inexplicably turns up dead). His foot has shrunk two sizes (but war and Yankee incarceration will do that to a man??). No one seems perturbed that the brutish lout who left for war returns quite changed and is now a gentle visionary. Laurel welcomes the sensitive lover into her bed. The townspeople readily latch onto his progressive ideas of crop rotation, cooperative farming and racial equality. Only spurned Orin is a sore loser. He provokes the events that lead to the courtroom drama that constitutes the last third of the movie. Amidst a lot of gavel-banging by Jones, the truth gets murkier and murkier. How can a woman sleeping with a man not know for certain whether or not he's her husband? At its best, these are the types of question the movie tries to probe. Following conflicting courtroom testimony, what's occurring becomes vaguely unclear. Sommersby is not a terrible movie, there are just many things about it that aren't quite right. While both Gere and Foster give intelligent performances, there's no spark or chemistry to their passion. Jack's plans for revolutionizing the plantation sound more like ideals appropriate to a hippie commune than an aristocratic Southern landowner. The pretty-pretty camerawork of Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It, Emerald Forest, Dangerous Liaisons) lends a warm, kerosene-lit glow that adds the soft-focus look of a dime-store historical romance. Still, the performance are uniformly wonderful, making Sommersby solidly entertaining though never engrossing. (P.S.: The Sommersby family cow is named Clarice.)
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