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‘Sommersby’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 05, 1993

If you're looking for a picturesque romance -- with a little intrigue on the side -- you could do worse than "Sommersby." A Civil War-era love story about deceptions, passions and new beginnings, it gets most of its artillery from the smoochy rapport between Richard Gere and Jodie Foster.

They turn this Reconstruction yarn -- cribbed from the French movie "The Return of Martin Guerre" -- into something surprisingly diverting.

An unkempt, bearded Gere stumbles into sleepy Vine Hill, Tenn., about two years after the war. A local fellow studies him with partial recognition. When Gere gives him a knowing aside, the old man welcomes his old friend, Jack Sommersby. A few clumsy encounters later, it appears to Vine Hill folks that Jack is back after a six-year absence. Foster, his wife, stands at the steps of her home. In front of a celebratory crowd, Gere approaches her. Her eyes study him intensely. After some hesitation, they finally embrace. The people cheer. He's home -- isn't he?

If you've seen the popular "Martin Guerre," you know essentially what's happening here. There are secrets to be learned about Gere. Foster is also keeping her cards close to the chest. But if the American version, directed by Jon Amiel and scripted by Nicholas Meyer, has the same destination as "Guerre," it takes its own road in doing so.

Gere's transition at Vine Hill is shaky. He remembers details of his former life but he's hazy on other things -- and people. Some get suspicious. The shoemaker wonders how Gere's feet went down two sizes since his departure, while Bill Pullman, a sneaky preacher, views Gere's arrival with less than the best of faith.

This Sommersby, it seems, is too nice, especially when he proposes his extensive land be carved into purchasable tobacco plots for the economically depressed community. Even blacks are invited to work -- and buy a piece of -- the land. Yet Foster seems perfectly content; she's head-over-heels in love.

Collaborating with Anthony Shaffer and Sarah Kernochan on the story, Meyer has respectably transmogrified a story of 15th-century France into 19th-century America. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot repeats that overblown beauty he brought to "Henry and June," but in this swoony context, it's highly appropriate.

Scorer Danny Elfman (whose credits range from founding the rock group Oingo Boingo to the theme for "The Simpsons") does not spare the sap, particularly when those tobacco leaves start growing.

Gere is cast well as an individual who exudes sincerity and insincerity simultaneously. Is he who he says he is? Is his post-slavery philanthropy for real? In what could have been a thankless role, Foster shows what she's made of. Her Southern wife is memorably courageous and attention getting.

When Gere early on asks Foster to shave him, she scrapes his throat with an intriguing combination of curiosity and potential menace. During the hairy operation, Gere asks her if their love (which appears to have been stymied long ago) could have been better.

"Could've been," she says, wielding that razor dangerously close to his throat, "if you'd been the least . . . bit . . . kinder."

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