Los Angeles Times

In Love and War


Wednesday December 18, 1996

     As depicted in Richard Attenborough's "In Love and War," young Ernest Hemingway is anything but earnest. Cocky, conceited and self-absorbed, the novelist-to-be is played by Chris O'Donnell as the last person you'd expect to find in love with anyone but himself.
     And in truth there is so little convincing passion in this tepid story set in northern Italy during the closing days of World War I that "In Love and Snore" might be a more appropriate title. Glossy, genteel, conventional through and through, "In Love" likely never would have made it this far if Hemingway wasn't one protagonist and Agnes Von Kurowsky, the model for the heroine of his "A Farewell to Arms," wasn't the other.
     It's Aggie (brightly played by Sandra Bullock) we meet first, a 26-year-old American Red Cross nurse who looks so pristine that a small Italian boy thinks she's an angel from heaven. Devoted to her work, she is indifferent to the admiring glances she attracts from older locals, though other nurses are not above noticing that "these Italian gents sure are gallant."
     Some miles away, brash 18-year-old Red Cross volunteer Ernie Hemingway (he lied about his age to get in) is bored with his assignment manning a coffeepot. So he bicycles to the front lines to hand out cigarettes to Italian soldiers and ends up getting shot in the leg, the first American casualty in that country.
     Naturally Ernie is taken to Aggie's hospital, where she notices that gangrene is starting to set in. No slouch in the medical department, Aggie applies a new irrigation technique to the wound and even changes the mind of the suave Italian doctor (Emilio Bonucci) who wants to amputate as a precautionary measure.
     No sooner does Ernie regain consciousness than he starts to put his teenage hustler moves on Aggie. Other men are interested in her as well, including Ernie's pal Henry Villard (nicely played by Mackenzie Astin) and the good doctor, who turns out to be an aristocrat with a palazzo in Venice with a heck of a view of the Grand Canal.
     But for reasons that three separate screenwriters (Allan Scott, Clancy Sigal and Anna Hamilton Phelan) have been unable to make either clear or convincing, Aggie has eyes only for Ernie. Never mind that he's a fatuous jerk too irrepressibly juvenile for words, never mind that Aggie accurately says, "You are such a child, when are you going to grow up?"--the movie treats him like the catch of the decade.
     Part of the problem is that there is little on-screen chemistry between the two leads. O'Donnell's character is so busy being stuck on himself that any emotion he directs toward anyone else seems just a reflection of that self-love. And Bullock, who looks completely at home in period dress, never seems much more than bemused by the person she and everyone calls "Kid." Plus the supposed eight-year difference in their ages, of which a great deal is made, is not visible at all to the camera.
     Adding to this difficulty is the script's determination to spend much of its time showing the buildup to this romance and its sour aftermath. The actual love affair itself is treated so briefly and cursorily it is hard to take it as seriously as we're expected to.
     The main source for this story is "Hemingway in Love and War: The Lost Diary of Agnes Von Kurowsky" co-authored by the real-life Henry Villard, a book that apparently takes the view that this relationship ran into problems because Agnes didn't have the courage to keep her commitments to a too-much younger man.
     What we see on screen is something very different, not a grand amour that floundered but an inconsequential liaison that was obviously never meant to be. Instead of blaming Aggie for her lack of nerve, we feel like congratulating her for a narrow escape from a life with Mr. Attitude. Not even Richard Attenborough of "Gandhi," maybe especially not Richard Attenborough of "Gandhi," can make a moving love story out of such unpromising material.

In Love and War, 1996. PG-13, for graphic war injuries and some sensuality. A New Line production, in association with Dimitri Villard productions, released by New Line Cinema. Director Richard Attenborough. Producers Dimitri Villard, Richard Attenborough. Executive producer Sara Risher. Screenplay by Allan Scott, Clancy Sigal, Anna Hamilton Phelan, based on screen story by Allan Scott and Dimitri Villard, based on the book "Hemingway in Love and War" by Henry S. Villard and James Nagel. Cinematographer Roger Pratt. Editor Lesley Walker. Costumes Penny Rose. Music George Fenton. Production design Stuart Craig. Art directors John King, Michael Lamont. Set designer Stephanie McMillan. Running time:1 hour, 58 minutes. Sandra Bullock as Agnes Von Kurowsky. Chris O'Donnell as Ernest Hemingway. Mackenzie Astin as Henry Villard. Emilio Bonucci as Domenico Caracciolo. Ingrid Lacey as Elsie "Mac" MacDonald.

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