Forget that this is Ernest Hemingway, and you'll be O.K.
"In Love and War" faces two imposing dilemmas and, considering the odds, comes off fairly well. A biographical look at a youthful episode in the life of one of America's most famous writers is a very risky undertaking. Director Richard Attenborough sidesteps the deadly trap by refusing to foreshadow the adult Ernest Hemingway. He plants no road signs to the future.
This admirable restraint allows us to use our own imaginations about the boy who went to Italy at age 19 to drive an ambulance. We can think, without being told, about the love story that later became "A Farewell to Arms." The leisurely pace of the movie allows that reflection.
The second hurdle is more difficult. It is tough, in a contemporary movie, to catch the awful carnage of foxholes and field hospitals without making it look quaint or studied, but Attenborough does it well. But the first World War killed ten million soldiers. It is a fact that on one day in 1916, the British had more men killed or wounded than America lost in the entire Vietnam war. For better or worse, this movie becomes one more set of images spawned by the war that ended the age of innocence.
Beyond those pitfalls, the movie tells the appealing love story of Ernest Hemingway (Chris O'Donnell) and Agnes von Kurowsky (Sandra Bullock.) As a brash young reporter for a Kansas City newspaper, Hemingway arrives in Northern Italy looking for adventure. Armed with bravado, he rides a bicycle, against orders, to the front lines to get his story from the men in the trenches. Once there, the sudden brutality of war engulfs him when he loses his new friends and gains a leg full of shrapnel.
Taken to a field hospital run with spit and polish by a dedicated nursing team, he falls in love with Aggie, the 26-year- old nurse who convinces a doctor not to amputate his leg. Director Attenborough does a good job of creating the feel of the oasis of professionalism that field hospitals became for horribly wounded teenage soldiers. When Aggie and her colleagues are sent to the front, the hospital and even the outdoors around it seem unbearably empty.
Sandra Bullock understands the subtle demands of her role. Credible as the calm center of chaos, she also manages to convey the cultural dictates of an era that made even one night together a violation of the code. She's terrific.
Unfortunately, it is Chris O'Donnell who is out of place as Hemingway. It isn't his fault, poor guy. He's just too nice to play mean old Ernest as a boy. O'Donnell is our vision of an Eagle Scout, and his effort to be a braggart is endearing rather than convincing. As he and Aggie thread their way through the history exploding around them, we become gratefully aware that this movie tells a small story without pretensions, exactly as it should be. Forget that this is Ernest Hemingway, and you'll be O.K.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 496
Studio : New Line Cinema
Rating : PG-13
Running Time: 1h55m
Copyright (c) Illusion
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