THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL VINTAGE REVIEW
If you’re not in the mood for intrigue, impassioned declarations and witty turns of phrase, please turn and flee from the 1982 TV movie version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, a film based on author Baroness Orczy’s popular adventure series. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you watch this hoping that it’s not a tale of love and adventure in the midst of the terrors of the French Revolution full of passion, conspiracies, secrets and narrow escapes, you will be sorely disappointed mes amis.
The Scarlet Pimpernel begins in the midst of the height of the bloody French Revolution. The country’s citizenry have turned on their aristocrats and brought down the royal family. Entire families – men, women and children – are executed if they are suspected of noble blood or royalist sympathies, and the only true royal left is the forlorn little Dauphin, imprisoned at the hands of his enemies.
Yet, even as they celebrate their triumphs, the bloodthirsty agents of the French government find that they are defied by a mysterious personality who they can never apprehend and who manages to orchestrate daring rescue missions, stealing away condemned aristocrats from under their very noses. All they know is that these nobles vanish away. A sign that they have been tricked is signified by a piece of paper with a drawing of the little red scarlet pimpernel flower left at the scene.
It is against this backdrop that a French actress, Marguerite St. Just, played by Jane Seymour, finds herself unwillingly caught up in the political conspiracies. She is immensely popular in Paris, feted for her talents, her wit and her beauty, admired by many men, including Chauvelin, a dedicated agent of the French government, played by Ian McKellen. His passion for the young actress seems only second to his love of the revolution and his desire to destroy the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel.
Marguerite’s life is thrown into turmoil when her beloved brother is beaten for expressing romantic interest in a noblewoman. While dealing with the pain of his treatment, she meets Sir Percy Blakeney (who she later marries) a seemingly silly, vain, absurdly foppish and very British gentleman who yet fascinates and attracts her with his declarations of love. She is drawn to him although she doesn’t always understand him.
Chauvelin is overshadowed by Blakeney and is consumed with jealousy. Chauvelin proves he doesn’t really care for Marguerite as much as he claims by implicating her as an informant who causes the death of an entire noble family. Unaware of Marguerite’s innocence, Blakeney is horrified by his wife’s involvement and apparent callousness and a rift is driven between them from that moment on. After all, how can The Scarlet Pimpernel – for of course this is Blakeney’s secret life (gasp!) – trust someone with such cold sensibilities?
Marguerite finds herself estranged from her husband as she struggles to understand the mysteries of a life he keeps hidden from her. Chauvelin continues to haunt her cruelly manipulating her into helping him track down the wily Scarlet Pimpernel.
There are not enough good adventure movies out there in my opinion, and I was delighted to add this movie to my short list of great ones because it is full of exciting exploits and conflict. We’re drawn into the suspense and intrigue of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s wily and daring plots as he outwits his pursuers and matches his amazing smarts against the devious and ruthless Chauvelin. The movie builds real tension as the Scarlet Pimpernel coolly and daringly goes again and again into desperate situations where it seems that escape is impossible.
The acting is also very good in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Jane Seymour certainly looks the part of the exquisite and spirited Marguerite, and she carries off the part really well. I loved seeing Ian McKellen in this as I realize I’m only familiar with his well-known roles in recent years. His Chauvelin is definitely not the icy, inscrutable villain type. He can barely control his anger when he is thwarted, and his desperation is sometimes hilariously visible as he clearly is mentally imagining himself personally strangling his cocky yet evasive nemesis. It’s fun watching their confrontations.
The best player in this adventurous tale though is Anthony Andrews who has a job which I thought would be very difficult when I read the book. He has to take on the part of the most foppish man alive and at the same time portray a deep and brilliant personality when appropriate. At other times, he needs to be a keen, intrepid and confident leader in the midst of pressing danger. Without a doubt, Andrews achieves it all perfectly. He is the enchanting, gutsy, charming hero we need, and it’s so easy to see how Marguerite falls for him early in their courtship. The wit and charm of the dialogue throughout this film is excellent, and it is particularly felt here. “I cannot tell if you are mad or –” Marguerite whispers as he draws her aside during a gathering to declare how much he adores her.
“Desperately in love?” he finishes her sentence. “It is all the same. Tell me if you can that you do not feel it too?”
“Please, you move too fast,” she murmurs breathlessly.
“My heart dictates the pace.”
Yes, I was gone then, and I’d have been appalled if Marguerite hadn’t been too.
A note for people who are a fan of the books (if you haven’t read them by the way, you should!): I heard great things about this movie before I saw it, but I was very hesitant when I learned that though the movie shares its name with the first book in the series, the plot is a sort of combination of Baroness Orczy’s first novel and another book in the series – Eldorado. I think the story could have stuck with the first book alone, but the fusion of the plots and many other elements of the movie are so well done, I can’t bring myself to find a lot of fault with the choice. Don’t let it stop you Scarlet Pimpernel fans I beg of you.
If you love your period dramas full of….well drama and with plenty of spirited adventure, la and begad m’dears, you can’t go wrong with this involving and intriguing story of romance, heroes and villains.
Photos: London Films/CBS