Late in the insipid In Love and War, young Ernest Hemingway sends a letter to his great love Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse eight years his senior. In the letter, Ernie outlines their blissful future back in America: They’ll get hitched and live together in his dad’s cabin, where she’ll be “making the old place spic-and-span while I write great works.” Gee, what fun. What woman in her right mind could pass that up?
Well, Agnes did. Directed by Richard Attenborough in his boring important-movie mode, In Love and War is the true story of how the 18-year-old Hemingway, wounded during ambulance duty in World War I and hospitalized in Milan, gave his heart to his lovely nurse Agnes, who promptly broke it. After that, poor Ernie went home, according to the movie, and became Papa Hemingway as we know him — the macho, boozing womanizer who fictionalized Agnes as A Farewell to Arms‘ Catherine (one of many two-dimensional Hemingway women), and gave Catherine a painful and lingering death for good measure.
In short, the movie says that Hemingway’s entire work and later life boil down to “Take that, Agnes, you bitch.” It’s a moronically simple summing-up, as movies about writers often are. The great folly of In Love and War is that it doesn’t bring to life the passionate affair whose failure supposedly fueled both Hemingway’s misogyny and his art. The romance is twice described as “a kid’s fling,” and, despite the movie’s attempts to prove otherwise, that’s exactly what it is.
Perhaps no actors could have saved the goofy script. It took three writers to come up with sub-Hemingway drivel like “I can’t stand the thought of you leaving” and “You have to save him! He’s never been with a woman!” — that one got unintended giggles from the audience. But the people behind this alternately remote and corny saga stepped on a landmine when they cast the leads: Sandra Bullock as the fair Agnes, and … Chris O’Donnell as Hemingway. Yes. Let that sink in.
What a wonderfully transparent bit of let’s-pull-in-the-teenage-girls casting. More wonderful still, it fails laughably. Bullock said in interviews that she kept a lid on her familiar bubbly persona to play the repressed Agnes. But she goes so far that she makes Julia Roberts’ Mary Reilly look like Fran Drescher. Bullock’s Agnes comes off as utterly passionless and dull, which makes young Ernie seem even more of a smitten twit for being so stuck on her.
Then there’s Chris O’Donnell. I will cherish my memory of Chris at the end of In Love and War, bearded and bitter, drinking fiercely and trying very hard to be dark and tormented. Such incomparable moments are why I go to the movies. For most of the film, though, he’s so relentlessly Chris that we forget he’s supposed to be Hemingway. Now and then, Ernie scribbles in a notepad. I guess he’s a writer or something? The movie is foolish and pointless, particularly coming after The English Patient — a far richer tale of love and war worthy of Hemingway at his best. In Love and War is more like Hemingway at his worst, which can be very bad indeed.