Cephallonia, 1941. Bright village beauty Pelagia (Cruz) is betrothed to simple, boyish Mandras (Bale), who has gone off to fight in Albania. As the Italians invade the island, Pelagia is drawn to the charming, musical, life-embracing 'enemy', Captain Corelli (Cage). But their love seems impossible when the Greek partisans (including Mandras) organise resistance and the Germans brutally take control of their paradise.
A publishing phenomenon, Louis de Berniere's bestselling tale of love and war, music and innocence lost in bloodshed and remorse, had to be made into a movie. Yet it's no small task tackling a beloved saga that is reckoned to nestle in one out of every 20 British households.
Fans will argue it's not as good as the book, but John Madden has delivered a pretty mooch around rustic, tranquil Cephallonia. The prospective lovers exchange guilty looks and barbs; gentle Antonio and his good-humoured company of soldiers perform opera and demonstrate they are lovers, not fighters; invaders and occupied tentatively celebrate their shared culture, all of them bathed in endless sunshine. When we hear the Allies have taken faraway Rome, it's a case of, "Oh, right, there's a war on."
It's an hour and a half before the conflict really impacts, the bigger picture sacrificed in Shawn Slovo's screenplay in favour of the central love story and the journeys of a fistful of characters, including Bale's - from amorous, carefree fisherman to hardened guerrilla - and Morrissey's, whose 'good' German is particularly affecting, while Hurt pieces characters and the narrative together as doctor/witness with his customary, formidable flair.
The execution of a dozen Italians is the most powerful climax in a scenic, old-fashioned affair, but in reality, 10,000 of them were murdered, which makes the small-scale human story threads here rather thin, however tenderly spun out.
Cruz is sweet in her '40s frocks and, undone by Corelli's string plucking, registers distress prettily. Cage is appropriately charming, lovable and impassioned. The insoluble problem is the accents, creating a seriously unfortunate air of absurdity. Those playing Greeks (and Pappas, who, rather amazingly, got in this picture even though she really is Greek) affect lusty booming as though auditioning for a Zorba re-make, though extras around the village square carry on in Greek, which seems very obdurate of them. Actors playing principal Italians speaka da English like Chico Marx - including Cage (real name Coppola), who has a firmer grip on the famous mandolin than on his vowel sounds - but chorus boys sing and march in Italiano.
They actually sing Santa Lucia, too. You half expect a gondolier to appear singing, "Just-a one Cornetto." But no, it's the Nazis who pitch up, which is when the film really gets going. Where would war movies be without those bastards, eh? Once the Huns get beastly and the fighting and suffering kick in, you can unfurl the tissues without feeling sheepish.
A cinematic box of chocolates. It looks good and has yummy moments, but leaves you wanting something more substantial. The cast manfully fight to make it more than a photogenic romance, but that said, the ending is a lot more emotionally acceptable than in the book.