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SOMMERSBY(director: Jon Amiel; screenwriters: Nicholas Meyer/Sarah Kernochan/from the story by Nicholas Meyer & Anthony Shaffer/from the movie The Return of Martin Guerre written by Daniel Vigne & Jean-Claude Carrière; cinematographer: Philippe Rousselot; editor: Peter Boyle; music: Danny Elfman; cast: Richard Gere (Jack), Jodie Foster (Laurel), Bill Pullman (Orin Meecham), James Earl Jones (Judge Issacs), William Windom (Reverend Powell), Lanny Flaherty (Buck), Brett Kelley (Rob); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Arnon Milchan/Steven Reuther; Warner Brothers; 1993)
“Lacks whatever magical ingredient there is that makes a film a moving experience and instead settles for being an adequate but not a remarkable achievement.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

British-born Jon Amiel (“Queen of Hearts”/Brit TV’s mini-series “The Singing Detective”) directs Hollywood’s version of the 1982 French film, The Return of Martin Guerre, which starred Gerard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye. Hollywood keeps the same plot but changes the story from its 16th century Pyrenees location concerning a wandering peasant brought to trial twice as an impersonator to the American South location seven years after the Civil War at a time of Reconstruction. The film is greatly helped by the solid acting performances by the stars, Richard Gere and Jodie Foster, and the surprisingly taut script turned in by Nicholas Meyer and Sarah Kernochan, especially since the added dilemmas created by Hollywood messes with a more convincing true story.

Laurel Sommersby (Foster) works the inherited broken-down Tennessee cotton farm and dwells there with her son (Brett Kelley), believing her brutish and drunkard wealthy husband Jack (Gere) was killed during the war. But an ex-Reb soldier claiming to be Jack suddenly appears and says he returned from a PoW camp at Elmira, N.Y., a camp renown for its harsh treatment of the prisoners. He soon boffs his wife, makes nice to the kid, and acts so much like a real sweetie that they can’t believe that the callous Jack could have changed so much to a sensitive New Age man. When his dog Jethro growls at him, he’s soon dispatched and never mentioned again after buried. That his old shoes don’t fit, is never made known by his wife. In the meantime Laurel has become engaged to helpful farmer Orin Meecham (Bill Pullman), but is so impressed by the handsome dude in her bed that she quickly calls off the engagement– which angers Orin.

Jack has changed so much that he economically helps out an ex-slave, as he now advocates racial equality and in a community-minded selfless act helps rescue the impoverished Vine Hill from their economic doldrums by a plan to pool resources forming a co-op and switch from growing cotton to tobacco. A scheme that saves the town but incurs the wrath of the KKK because it includes black sharecroppers. But the town that at first suspected him of being a fake, is now pleased with the prosperity he brought them and have become willing to look the other way. But Orin suspects that Jack is an impostor masquerading as the wealthy Sommersby, a suspicion secretly shared by the now pregnant Laurel.

But when accusations are presented that Jack is a murderer, he is arrested for a murder he drunkenly committed before he went off to war as the town can’t overlook such serious charges. The court trial presided over by the black Judge Issacs (James Earl Jones) leads to some astonishing disclosures about the past.

It could have turned out a lot worse than it did, but nevertheless lacks whatever magical ingredient there is that makes a film a moving experience and instead settles for being an adequate but not a remarkable achievement. Its cerebral aim is twofold: it tries to keep the viewer guessing about Jack’s motives for being an impostor and it tries to ask the deeper philosophical question — What is the identity of man?


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”