Friday Film Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)
Genre: Historical Romance/Adventure
Grade: well….it depends
I don’t think I’d be too far off in saying that this is the definitive version of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Note I didn’t say the perfect version as there are plot problems galore plus some truly awful acting from a few of the cast members. But for my money’s worth, this is the one I think of first and the one I’d watch first above all others.
France during the Reign of Terror – as the aristos are herded to Madame la Guillotine, a brave band of Englishmen lead by one known only as the Scarlet Pimpernel (Anthony Andrews) affect daring rescues of a handful of the French. Chauvelin (Ian McKellen) who is on the Committee of National Security is charged with discovering his identity and bringing him to French justice. Meanwhile Chauvelin’s almost fiancee Marguerite St. Just (Jane Seymour) meets and is courted by Sir Percy Blakeney after he saves her brother Armand (Malcolm Jamieson) from a beating delivered on the orders of the Marquis de St. Cyr.
Percy presses his suit and wins the hand of Marguerite, much to the dismay of Chauvelin. But the Frenchman has discovered something Marguerite knows and uses it to discredit her in her new husband’s eyes. Fearing he can never trust the woman he adores, Percy withdraws from Marguerite at the same time that Chauvelin finds out that Armand is now a member of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Using this to blackmail Marguerite, Chauvelin orders her to spy on the English aristocracy and discover the identity of the Pimpernel. Events come to a head when Marguerite unwittingly betrays the man she loves. Can she reach Percy in France in time to undo her error? Or will Chauvelin triumph and see them both dead?
I first saw this TV adaptation over 20 years ago and was enthralled by it. Taping it off of a broadcast, I watched it over and over. It was one of the first VHS tapes I bought and I’ve since replaced that with a DVD. But in all honesty, it has its problems. Viewed critically, the plot holes are enormous, there are things which happen that make little sense, it’s obvious that the budget had its limitations, there are major deviations from the book and some of the actors are simply dreadful.
Let me elaborate on this. During the crowd scenes notice how few people there really are onscreen. How well dressed most of the Parisian peasants are. How the French guards are always the same. And why would Percy order Andrew to set up a network of couriers when they’d been doing this for months and ought to already have had one? Why would Chauvelin honor a request of the Prince of Wales to allow Marguerite to see Percy in jail much less let her loose afterwards to carry out Percy’s instructions? And what happened to Andrew between the time he and Marguerite sailed for France up til the final showdown? Then let’s talk about some of the secondary actors. Oh, dear. Malcolm Jamieson is so wooden you could make a suite of furniture from him while there’s a terrible scene of the de Tourney family hashing over the Revolution’s causes and effects with Percy after he first delivers his famous “They seek him here” poem.
And yet…in spite of all of this I still love this version. The budget might not have been endless but the costumes are wonderful. Even the secondary characters are dressed well while the primary ones wear delicious costumes. And oh, the hats! I love the hats. The music is soaring when it needs to be and heartbreaking when Percy and Marguerite are estranged. The dance sequences needed for an English historical are there (really, is there a late 18th/early 19th century piece that doesn’t have the obligatory dance sequences?). The sets are pretty good and cleverly used while the locations for shooting seem period.
Then there are the performances of Andrews and Seymour. The strength of a Pimpernel adaptation sinks or swims based on the actors playing Percy and Marguerite. As Percy and the Pimpernel, Andrews shines as both public fop and private man of action. I love his exclamations of “Sink me!” while he bemoans the sorry state of his cravat. When fighting is required, he more than adequately fences. Seymour isn’t quite as good yet she’s still much better than the next best Marguerite and manages to make me believe that Percy falls for her instantly and remains besotted with her. McKellan does a good turn as Chauvelin though I wish he had more of the chemistry with Seymour that she abundantly has with Andews.
I also like that the film takes the time to show several of the League’s rescues and the many clever disguises they used including the last ones which turn the table in the face of Chauvelin’s momentary triumph and lead to the final duel scene. The buddy relationship between the members of the League is nice to see as well. I can believe that these are men who’ve been friends since school days and who trust each other in the face of death.
While it’s far from perfect, for me the 1982 version still trumps all others. It’s lovely to watch and listen to and conveys the dash and verve needed. I think it captures the spirit of the characters created by Baroness Orczy. Perhaps someone will eventually redo it and fix some of these deficiences but for now, it’s the main one I watch and recommend.
~Jayne – and doesn’t Daffy Duck make a wonderful Scarlet Pumpernickel?