Sommersby (1993): 4/5

Sommersby is a retelling of the Martin Guerre story, shifted to the American South during reconstruction rather than medieval France.

Richard Gere stars as the Martin Guerre-based character, Jack Sommersby. Jack left town to fight in the Civil War and was gone for years, during which time his wife Laurel (Jodie Foster) became convinced that he was dead. As a result, she had a little bit of extracurricular fun with another man. Jack returns to the town, but falls under suspicion as evidence begins to mount that he may not be the real Jack Sommersby.

As suspicions of her husband rise, Laurel Sommersby may be wishing she would’ve pulled a Sweeney Todd in this scene.

While the premise is, of course, very similar to Le Retour de Martin Guerre, this retelling is completely different from the older French film, which both delighted and surprised me. I expected it to be a carbon-copy of the French version, but told in English and set in a different place — that is, I expected to be watching virtually the same film again, but with American actors.

I’m very, very glad that this wasn’t the case – not only because I watched Retour so recently and probably would have been bored, but because they changed the story in an interesting way.

Sommersby puts less focus on the time before Jack left town, making it less apparent how Jack has changed since he left for war. In Retour it was quite obvious that the man who came back acted completely differently. Whether this was a result of his growing up or because he is, in fact, a different man, is a mystery to the viewer.

By taking out that background of Jack and his marriage before the war, Sommersby takes a bit of that obvious change away, leading the viewer to accept from the beginning that Richard Gere is Jack.

Placing the Martin Guerre story in an American context also gives the film more freedom to be lax about historical accuracy. Usually I would not see this as a good thing, but in this case, it works. It’s obvious that they’re using the idea of Martin Guerre and not trying to follow his scandal to a tee, which gives them more freedom to explore the “love triangle” aspect of the story.

They also make Jack a very progressive man, planning to sell some of his land to African Americans, which raises a completely different set tensions than there are in the French film. So while the film does not remain completely accurate to the original French story, it becomes historically relevant to the American audience, who is more familiar with the story of Reconstruction than with medieval European society.

Now, don’t let all of this raving fool you: this film is not a masterpiece in the least. The performances totter on the edge of the “corny cliff” from time to time, and they’re not 100% believable.

But the plot is solid. The pacing is also well-done, so none of the scenes feel very flat or dull. And the mystery of the story makes it very entertaining to watch.