Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Director John Madden’s last film was “Shakespeare in Love,” a widely praised Oscar-winner full of life and wit. Apparently, Madden used up everything he had in that film, as his new one, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” is sluggish, dull and altogether mediocre — in other words, the polar opposite of “Shakespeare in Love.” I can understand not wanting to fall into a rut, but this is ridiculous.

“Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” is set on the beautiful Greek island of Cephallonia in 1940. A wise doctor (John Hurt) stands around and says wise things like, “We should not ask why we are wounded; only if the wound can be healed,” while his hot daughter Pelagia (Penelope Cruz) flirts with local boy Mandras (Christian Bale).

Mandras has to go off to fight the war, which leaves Pelagia free at home to fall in love with the titular mandolinier, an Italian soldier stationed on the island. Corelli (Nicolas Cage) spends most of his time organizing his men into a formidable opera choir, which somehow fails to make them fearsome enemies when the Nazis show up. He also winds up living with the doctor and Pelagia, in a classic maneuver you will recall from “Three’s Company.”

Then Mandras comes home and is some kind of crazy underground guerrilla warrior, beard and everything. He’s jealous of the new romantic developments, of course. Corelli is kind of his enemy anyway, though you will need to know your World War II history to understand exactly what the Italians are doing in Greece in the first place, and whose loyalties are toward which countries, because the movie does a lousy job explaining it. That’s because it’s not a war picture; it’s a romantic epic.

Cage’s performance is choppy but generally watchable; he’s reigned in his lunatic side just this once. Cruz, bless her heart, can barely give much convincing emotion in English, let alone in English with a fake Greek accent. (For months, I’ve been laughing at the line she says in the film’s trailer: “You theen you can come here and turn my whole whirl usside-down?” It’s even funnier now that I’ve seen it in context.)

For about half of the film’s running time, nothing happens. Corelli shows up, they fall in love, Mandras comes back: Fine, but surely no one expected us to be wrapped up in the brilliance of THAT plotline. Perhaps some interesting dialogue or a parallel subplot would have given the old penny a new shine?

When things do happen, the film becomes quite riveting. This lasts approximately 15 minutes. Then we’re in for an extremely protracted ending where Madden seems to be avoiding the inevitable. He knows that WE know how it’s going to end, and he looks around frantically for a curveball to throw us. So there’s a random earthquake that means nothing. And then the end really comes, and sure enough, it’s just what we thought was going to happen 20 minutes ago. Nice try, fellas.

This is the sort of movie that LOOKS like an Academy Award contender. It’s a drama set during a time of war with a sweeping musical score and grand ideas, full of lofty philosphies and tragic romances. What will keep it far, far away from the Oscars is the fact that it’s just a shell of a movie. It’s puffed up real pretty, but it has no heart or soul.

C- (; R, a few harsh profanities, some nudity, some sexuality, some strong war violence.)