Acorn Media // 1982 // 142 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // May 18th, 2013
They seek him here; they seek him there
The Frenchies seek him everywhere!
Is he in heaven? Is he in Hell?
That damned, elusive Pimpernel!
The Scarlet Pimpernel, the invention of Baroness Emmuska Orczy (a British writer of Hungarian origin), first appeared in a 1903 play, which was such a success that Orczy rewrote it as a novel. Ten more novels followed, along with several collections of short stories. It's been staged and filmed multiple times, most recently in a Broadway musical that ran from 1997-2000. The story has even received that most illustrious of accolades, a Looney Tunes parody -- Daffy Duck in 1949's "The Scarlet Pumpernickel." In 1982, CBS aired a lavish production of the story, brought to us today by Acorn Media.
1792: The French Revolution has given way to the Reign of Terror. As a family is taken to meet their fate, a priest whisks them to a side exit from the prison and smuggles them out to freedom. When the father asks who is to thank for the rescue, one of their saviors gestures at the cart driver, a gruff, disreputable looking sort. "Why, the Scarlet Pimpernel, of course." After the family leaves, the Scarlet Pimpernel removes his disguise, revealing the countenance of one Sir Perceval Blakeney (Anthony Andrews, Brideshead Revisited). He and his compatriots intend to rescue as many people from the guillotine as possible. That doesn't interfere with Blakeney's social life, however; in fact, he manages to fall for the ravishing French actress Marguerite St. Just (Jane Seymour, Live and Let Die), marrying her after a whirlwind courtship. Shortly after their wedding, though, Marguerite is accused of sympathizing with the French revolutionaries. Blakeney is shaken to the core by this revelation, but another crisis has appeared. Following the execution of Louis XVI, Blakeney realizes that Louis' heir, the Dauphin, must be rescued. However, glaring obstacle stands in his way: Paul Chauvelin (Ian McKellen, X-Men), a wily agent of Robespierre. He is convinced that the Pimpernel is a British nobleman, and threatens to expose Blakeney's plans at every turn. As if life weren't treacherous enough, Chauvelin is Marguerite's former lover, and uses her brother as leverage to blackmail Marguerite into using her access to British society to help him ferret out the Pimpernel's true identity.
Blakeney brings all of his cunning into play...but will it be enough?
In reviewing a BBC version of this tale in The Romance Collection: Special Edition, the court noted that the plot was seriously undercut by the quest for a short running time. This adaptation, in contrast, has the opposite problem -- at close to two-and-a-half hours, it has a tendency to drag -- even though the plot is an amalgam of two separate novels. That said, there's a lot to enjoy here, chief among them the performances. It's Andrews' show from beginning to end; between his various disguises, as well as the various public faces he assumes to divert suspicion, he displays an amazing versatility. He has a smoldering chemistry with Seymour (who looks about as stunning as I've ever seen her). Their initial meeting is particularly charming, as Blakeney is so completely smitten that he has trouble maintaining his carefully affected foppish manner. Jane Seymour's Marguerite is more than your typical damsel -- she's strong-willed, decisive, and just as smitten as Blakeney. This was one of McKellen's first screen roles; previously, he was known primarily as a stage actor. Here, he's driven, ruthless, and cagey -- and still in love with Marguerite. Some early scenes between Chauvelin and Blakeney, in which Chauvelin clearly doesn't know what to make of this addle-pated popinjay, demonstrate why he has to get help from someone like Marguerite -- his directness and lack of tact make him singularly unsuitable to elicit information during polite conversation. Oddly enough, the love that Blakeney and Chauvelin share for Marguerite results in some interesting parallels, as both characters are forced to choose between her and their goals. While the film does tend to drag, the extra running length does allow for solid character development.
When they put the "the picture may reveal the limitations of the source material" warning at the beginning, you know you're not getting reference-grade material. Hoo boy, but the video stinks. Dark scenes have a great deal of flicker in dark scenes, there's a layer of grain so pervasive it's like a haze on the picture -- it's particularly a problem in the first part of the film. It's really a shame, given the strong production values -- the film picked up several Emmy nominations, winning for Costume Design. Audio fares better; it's a little thin and tinny in spots, but overall it's clear enough. There are no extras.
If you go into The Scarlet Pimpernel expecting swashbuckling action adventure, you're likely to be disappointed -- and I'll admit, that's more or less what happened to me on my first viewing; so understand up front -- this is more of a period drama, filled with romance, intrigue, and the occasional spot of action. It's a bit of a tightrope, particularly given the short attention span of today's audiences. Once my expectations were shifted, the movie was much more enjoyable -- there's something to be said for the simple -- and all too rare -- pleasure of watching characters develop and grow over the course of a story.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 142 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site