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SOMMERSBY. Directed by Jon Amiel; written by Nicholas Meyer and Sarah Kernochan; produced by Arnon Milohan and Steven Reuther for Warner Bros. Starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster. Rated PG-13.


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First-rate star performances and a strong sense of time and place make Sommersby a success—in spite of some logical problems and the almost complete lack of any interesting supporting characters.

The movie is a transplantation of a medieval French story (made into the 1982 movie The Return of Martin Guerre) to Reconstruction-era Tennessee.

Two years after the Civil War has ended, and six years after he left his wife and baby, Jack Sommersby (Gere) returns to the war-weary village of Vine Hill. He is still the major landholder here, although the land, his plantation house, and most of the people are just about worn out from years of war and Yankee scavenging.

His old drinking buddies are glad to see him. But wife Laurel (Foster) seems less than overjoyed. As is her friend Orin (Bill Pullman) who had hoped to marry Laurel. It soon becomes apparent, though, that Jack has been greatly changed, one supposes, by the war. He is gentler now, and more civic-minded. In fact, he's an all-around great guy, in marked contrast to the lout he once was.

Laurel, though she has her doubts, and isn't sure quite how to feel about the man, eventually decides that she loves him anyway. But some others, notably the spurned Orin, think the changes in Jack are too good to be true.

The central force of Sommersby is Jack and Laurel's relationship, and it's very satisfying. Gere delivers a solid, appealing performance as the enigmatic Jack. And Foster is outstanding as Laurel, a role which at first glance would seem to be the less interesting of the two.

She makes it a fascinating study, however, of doubt, longing, strength, and commitment. All filtered through what seems to be a terrifically authentic Southern-aristocratic sensibility.

It's unfortunate that none of the other characters approach the depth of these two, but maybe that would be too much to ask. The Sommersbys' neighbors are flat and featureless. Even Orin, who could have been more, degenerates into sanctimony and cross-burning.

But the look and feel of the period are exquisitely detailed. We can feel the weariness of the people, the longing for something better. Coupled with the conviction that things can only get worse, they can still believe that the new Jack is the real Jack.

Sommersby is the kind of costumed romance that Hollywood used to churn out regularly, but which is pretty rare these days. If you're nostalgic for this kind of movie, by all means don't miss this one.

February 17, 1993

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