Set in the south of the United States just after the Civil War, Laurel Sommersby is just managing to work the farm without her husband Jack, believed killed in the Civil War. By all accounts, Jack Sommersby was not a pleasant man, thus when he returns, Laurel has mixed emotions. It appears that Jack has changed a great deal, leading some people to believe that this is not actually Jack but an impostor. Laurel herself is unsure, but willing to take the man into her home, and perhaps later into her heart...Written by
Murray Chapman <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I'm sorry for this long digression, but Sommersby reminds me of Berthold Brecht's play The Good Woman of Szechuan, based on a biblical parable. In the original parable, two women each claim that a baby is hers. King Solomon says he'll settle the matter by cutting the baby in half; one woman stops him, saying that the other can have the baby. Solomon gives the baby to the woman who has offered to relinquish it, on the basis that she loves the baby more than the other, so she must be the real mother. But in Brecht's version it is the false mother who relinquishes, and is therefore given, the baby. Brecht draws the Marxist moral from the story that things belong to those who love and use them best, regardless of legal ownership.
Jon Amiel's beautiful and touching film, adapted from a French movie, makes much the same point - that the pretended Jack Sommersby (Richard Gere) deserves to be regarded as the true husband of Laurel (Jody Foster) because he loves her more than the legal one; deserves to be regarded as the owner of the Sommersby land because he works it better; and deserves Sommersby's name - whatever that brings - because he honours it more.
At a realistic level there are a few difficulties in translating the original Martin Guerre story from the Middle Ages to the post Civil War era, and parts of the courtroom sequence could have been more incisive; but these flaws are of little account, compared with the overall sweep of the film, both plot-wise, but especially visually. It achieves epic proportions at some points, and there are wide vistas of people working in the fields reminiscent of Terrence Mallick's Days of Heaven, which also starred Gere.
It seems to be the done thing on these postings to sneer at Gere's acting; I've no idea why. Time after time, in a wide range of parts and films - from Yanks and An Officer and a Gentleman to Internal Affairs and Pretty Woman - he delivers professional and sensitive performances. Here again, his performance is impeccable; as is that of Jodie Foster, whose part calls for her to be restrained, especially when Sommersby first appears. (Incidentally, I couldn't care less whether there was any so-called chemistry between Gere and Foster; some film-goers should get it into their heads that couples on the screen are acting at making love, not engaging in the real activity.)
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