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‘Sommersby’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 05, 1993

Richard Gere fills the king-sized sabots of Gerard Depardieu with surprising skill in "Sommersby," the stirring remake of the tragic French love story "The Return of Martin Guerre." It's a return for Gere as well -- this wildly romantic, mildly corny melodrama finds the lazy-lidded leading man in his element after a flurry of flops, playing a Civil War veteran who left home a loutish officer and comes back a gentleman.

A more endearing and far nobler variation on the 15th century tale, the new version springs from the same premise: The neighbors begin to suspect that the returning Confederate is not merely a changed but an altogether different man. And Jack Sommersby (Gere) is just too good to be true. Presumed dead after a six-year absence, the cruel and bitter plantation owner seems to have come back from the future as a sensitive new age man.

Previously known for his disinterest in his wife Laurel (Jodie Foster) and his ineffectual management of his lands, Jack now courts his family and his community with a zeal befitting the Clinton campaign. As if hatched from a Capra movie, Master Jack has become populist Jack, bringing hope and speeches to the dispirited villagers of Yankee-ravaged Vine Hill, Tenn. But the politically corrected rebel stirs up the bigots when he decides to divide his acres fairly among the white sharecroppers and the freed slaves who have squatted on his lands.

Laurel, who has come to love and admire her husband as never before the war, stands firmly behind his efforts to bring harmony and prosperity again to Vine Hill. Still, she can't help but wonder at Jack's rekindled passions even as they snuggle, freckle to freckle, in the big ol' four-poster bed. (Foster, though slightly miscast, ably fills Laurel's hoop skirts.)

Not everyone is happy to see the smile on Laurel's thin lips or the swell of her belly -- especially not the old family friend (Bill Pullman), who figured on marrying her once she was officially widowed. And not everyone is thrilled that the tobacco Jack has introduced to the county is flourishing -- because the more money the crop brings, the sooner the black tenants will become equals. Inevitably, Jack's personal and political enemies devise a trap that he will escape only by denying his newfound identity. He goes on trial for his life, and Laurel begs him to save himself. But he refuses, valuing honor above all else, as gothic Southerners are wont.

Directed a tad languidly by Jon Amiel, "Sommersby" has highbrow pretentions, but it's really an old-fashioned hankie-soaker with Gere and Foster ably jerking tears. An odd yet convincing couple, they won't replace Rhett and Scarlet, and frankly, my dears, who can? But belles wring and bosoms heave in a manner most pleasing.

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