"Sommersby" is a remake of the French film "The Return of Martin Guerre," released here a decade ago with Gerard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye in the true story of a 16th-century French peasant who returns home a better person than he was when he left seven years earlier. Could he be an imposter? The American version is set in the Reconstruction era, following the Civil War and stars Richard Gere as the returning Confederate soldier who has been gone six years, with Jodie Foster as his curious wife.
"Sommersby" opens with Gere's character burying a body, then traveling to a small rural town where he claims to be Jack Sommersby, back from the war and several years in prison.
Everyone accepts him readily, if warily - including his wife Laurel, who remembers that he was a cruel man who was drunk when their son was conceived.
But Jack seems to know all about his neighbors, including intimate nicknames. He's kind to Laurel and her son, he comes up with a scheme to improve the economic climate of this sleepy, rural town. It is odd that his feet seem smaller and his signature is not the same. But he is, nonetheless, soon accepted by everyone.
Well, almost everyone.
Leading the opposition is Jack's rival (Bill Pullman), who was planning to marry Laurel. And the local Ku Klux Klan, which disapproves of Jack allowing blacks to farm and purchase some of his land.
Ultimately, Jack is charged with murder and finds that the only defense he might have is to confess that he isn't Jack Sommersby after all. Maybe he is, as some have said, a flimflam artist who masqueraded as a schoolteacher in a nearby town.
The cast is uniformly good, including Gere in the title role. But it's Foster who really glows here, giving her character a sense of depth and innocence that makes the entire unlikely premise more palatable. She has quickly become one of our finest actors, never failing to deliver a superb performance. And director Jon Amiel wisely allows her to shine.
"Sommersby" is rated PG-13 for violence, profanity and a bit more sex than might be expected with this rating.