Chris O’Donnell and Sandra Bullock go impassively through the motions of impersonating Ernest Hemingway and his long-lost heart’s desire in Sir Richard Attenborough’s “In Love and War.” Passion and immersion in character are the lacking ingredients in an otherwise stirring historical drama.
What we have here is a pivotal event in Hemingway’s life - the time in 1918 when the 19-year-old nascent writer and battlefront volunteer fell in love with his Red Cross nurse, 26-year-old Agnes von Kurowsky. The affair was not so ephemeral but what it caused Hemingway to base one of his stronger characters, the female protagonist of “A Farewell to Arms,” upon Kurowsky.
Kurowsky’s own private memoirs provide the basis for this movie, for which the title “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway” probably should have been reserved. But there’s already a movie out by that name, and “In Love and War” sounds much more dignified, at any rate.
Where director Attenborough excels is in conveying the late-Victorian moral climate that continued to shackle the desires of English-speaking citizens (even Americans) beyond the time of the First World War.
Emotional protocol becomes almost a character in the drama, which stays a reasonably steady course despite the best efforts of too many screenwriters.
But in bringing the time and the place back to life, Attenborough seems to leave his stars to their own devices.
Neither O’Donnell nor Bullock - screen presence and “star quality” notwithstanding - comes equipped automatically to portray such conflicted characters without guidance. As a consequence, it is obvious throughout that they are acting; the artifice never attains the level of feeling genuine.
The roles are well enough written. Bullock’s Kurowsky is a sharp-tongued sort who, though forbidden by ethical code from romantic involvements with her patients, flirts unashamedly with the wounded Hemingway even while addressing him as though he were a child.
At length, she confesses to a depth of feeling for him that can only hurt the both of them.
O’Donnell captures the daredevil aspect of the young Hemingway - he’s an ambulance driver who takes a leg full of shrapnel - but is hardly convincing as an ardent romancer or as a heartbroken casualty of careless love.
For the viewer who has been swept away of late by the grandiose, tragic romanticism of “The English Patient,” this new arrival will feel pretty much like Valentine’s Day in kindergarten.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “In Love and War” Locations: East Sprague, Lyons, Coeur d’Alene Cinemas Credits: Directed by Sir Richard Attenborough, starring Chris O’Donnell and Sandra Bullock Running time: 1:55 Rating: PG-13