Think The Player, and picture an agent hustling to get a complicated film like Sommersby made in high-concept Hollywood: "Remember that Frenchy hit with GTrard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye about ten years ago? Yeah, The Return of Martin Guerre. Grossed 4.3 mil. I know, I know — it's chump change. But for art-house stuff with subtitles, it's big bucks. Anyway, we remake it. Drop all the sixteenth-century-peasants-in-the-Pyrenees crap — why depress people, for chrissakes? But we keep the plot. Guy comes home from the war after seven years. He makes love to the wife, not just boffing. He talks to the kid. He's so nice they can't believe it's him. In fact, maybe he's a fake. Are you with me? We get stars — maybe Richard Gere and Jodie Foster — Pretty Woman's man meets Lecter's little lamb. And we update to the Civil War. Reconstruction. Gone With the Wind. Jodie wears corsets, and Richard makes like Rhett Butler, charging in to rebuild his marriage and the South. It can't miss."
The pitch is fantasy, of course. The reality was probably far worse. Yet the film was made. Given its myriad chances to sink in Hollywood pap, Sommersby does some deft sidestepping. The love story, beautifully acted by Richard Gere and Jodie Foster, makes for a ravishing romance. And British-born Jon Amiel (Queen of Hearts, TV's Singing Detective) directs with admirable restraint. There's none of the reactionary, magnolia-scented nostalgia for being rich and useless. Instead, we see the confusion of freed slaves and the resentment of their former owners that gives rise to the KKK. Of special pertinence right now is the new light the film sheds on marriage and the doubts it engenders. Who hasn't asked, What happened to the person I married?
Purists may reasonably object to Hollywood's messing with a true story. The Return of Martin Guerre, directed by Daniel Vigne, won acclaim for sticking to the facts; it was based on the 1561 account written by Jean de Coras, who presided over Guerre's trial for fraud. We won't spoil the rest of the mystery. But shoehorning this peculiarly French story into the American South during Reconstruction does some violence to the text. Writer Nicholas Meyer, whose work is less factual than fanciful (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Star Trek VI), never really plumbs the issues he raises about race, politics, religion and the roots of the New South. Though the tarnished glory of the Confederacy is superlatively evoked by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It) and composer Danny Elfman (Batman Returns), Sommersby is selective social history.
Martin Guerre has been Americanized into Jack Sommersby (Gere), a plantation owner, gambler and wife beater who returns home to his run-down brick mansion in Vine Hill, Tennessee, after years of fighting and then rotting in a Yankee prison. Laurel Sommersby (Foster) is initially chilly toward her husband. Believing Jack dead, she had promised to marry Orin Meecham (Bill Pullman), who tended her farm and raised her son, Robert (Brett Kelley). She shows Jack to his bedroom ("This is where you slept when you left") and retreats to her own.
What follows over a year is a remarkable courtship between a wife and a husband whose face is familiar but whose kindness she can't recognize. Laurel shaves off Jack's beard (she's never seen him without it) and tries to figure out how the lout who was drunk when their child was conceived and who mistreated her afterward is now a scholar who reads Homer and pursues her like an ardent lover. Jack argues that prison has changed him, but Laurel has her doubts — about his identity and his honor. Jack has run some strangers out of town; they've soldiered with Sommersby and claim this un-wounded man is an impostor. Jack's tobacco-growing scheme, requiring the sale of their land to strapped neighbors and former slaves, could be his chance to get rich quick and run. But when Jack works the farm and faces the Klansmen, who are outraged at blacks' owning property, Laurel accepts him.
This is Gere's most passionate performance since An Officer and a Gentleman. And Foster is extraordinary. At thirty, this two-time Oscar winner has matured into a striking woman, possessed of that rare beauty that radiates intelligence. It's not the dialogue but Foster's eloquent eyes that tell us whether Laurel is giving herself to her husband or to a con man who has won her bruised heart.
Things come to a head when Jack stands trial in Nashville for killing a man in a card game before he returned home. With a black judge (James Earl Jones) presiding, the trial draws the ire of the KKK. The defendant has his own worries. If he insists he's Jack Sommersby, he'll hang. If he can prove he's the schoolteacher the KKK says he is, he'll go free — but at a cost: He'll lose Laurel, and the neighbors will lose their land.
True to the spirit, if not the letter, of Martin Guerre, Sommersby questions the nature of truth, law, marriage and identity. It asks where honor and accountability stand in a time of greed and exploitation. Despite its flaws, Sommersby makes an ideal movie for the Clinton Reconstruction era. It posits the theory, cornball to some, that love and even a new country can be built on the hope for change.