Sommersby (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The United States Civil War has ended, and Jack Sommersby (Richard Gere) is returning home to a farm in ruins and a wife (Jodie Foster) who wishes he was dead. It's up to Jack to prove is that he's no longer the person he was six years ago when he left. Gone is the man who gambled and beat his wife, newly replaced by someone of a giving and caring nature. Yet, even as Jack begins to assemble a new beginning, questions about his identity arise. Could Jack Sommersby change this much, or is this really him at all?

Sommersby is based on the 1982 French film The Return of Martin Guerre, and is one of those rare remakes that does not tarnish the image of its inspiration. While Sommersby owes much to its predecessor, it is not a direct copy. There are differences, not only in setting, but in scripting. With the exception of a few early scenes lifted almost directly from Martin Guerre, only the general trajectory of the movies remains the same. The transition from 16th century France to 19th century America works effectively, and allows a few surprises for those who are familiar with Martin Guerre.

First and foremost, Sommersby is a love story. Much screen time is devoted to the relationship between Jack and Laurel. The movie takes its time with its characters; there are no sudden epiphanies. Love, and its realization, comes slowly, with a look and a touch. In many ways, this film goes against the grain of a typical Hollywood film. It has a slow, leisurely pace, and is almost (but not quite -- there is one fight scene) devoid of action..

In Sommersby, Richard Gere gives one of his most energetic performances in recent years. After drifting through a slew of films with little display of emotion or talent, Gere suddenly comes alive to give Sommersby a legitimate personality. Jodie Foster outdoes her Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs performance, playing Laurel with equal parts strength and vulnerability. Often in period pieces such as this, forceful female characters seem anachronistic. Sommersby shows that, with good scripting and even better acting, that problem can easily be overcome.

Technically, Sommersby is a superior production. Period details abound, and the cinematography is consistently strong, and occasionally breathtaking. Virginia is shown to its best advantage. Composer Danny Elfman, best known for his Batman score, delivers something refreshingly different. Occasionally, the music is imperfectly matched to the scenes, but the typical Elfman repetition is absent.

Sommersby should equally entertain those who have seen The Return of Martin Guerre and those who have not. From start to finish, it is a well-crafted film: part love story, part mystery, and all drama. The most painful and obvious of Hollywood's contrivances are nowhere to be found. With respect to Martin Guerre, Sommersby can genuinely be viewed as an homage -- the spirit of the original remains intact, which is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this production.

Sommersby (United States, 1993)

Director: John Amiel
Cast: Richard Gere, Jodie Foster, Bill Pullman, James Earl Jones, Lanny Flaherty
Screenplay: Nicholas Meyer and Sarah Kernochan
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Ranked #10 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1993
Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 1993-02-05
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1