Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This television minseries version of The Scarlet Pimpernel is nicely produced and occasionally fairly lavish.
The acting of the principals is fine, especially that of Ian McKellen as a dastardly villain. But the story of the
elusive saver of royal French necks is hobbled by a weak connect-the-dots script with mediocre dialogue that plays as if
it wants to be read tongue-in-cheek. There's scarcely a sense of humor, let alone the wit and light touch that the
The French Revolution's Reign of Terror has begun, with scores of aristocrats losing their heads daily.
Robespierre's devious chief of security Chauvelin (Ian McKellen) is charged with apprehending a phantom criminal who calls
himself The Scarlet Pimpernel, and who through disguise and stealth is spiriting condemned noble families to the safety of
England. Chauvelin's frustration is redoubled when his sweetheart actress Marguerite St. Just (Jane Seymour) takes up with
a visiting English fop named Sir Percy Blakeney (Anthony Andrews). Meanwhile, Marguerite's brother Armand (Malcolm
Jamieson) finds his post as Chavelin's assistant becoming morally untenable. Robespierre is holding the surviving heir to
Louis' royal throne as a symbol of republican power. The mysterious Baron de Batz (James Villiers) would like to ransom
the child in Austria but The Pimpernel has other plans.
The costumes are good, the crowd scenes around the guillotine are adequate and a large-scale ball is impressively
mounted in this otherwise tacky version of the famous thriller. It has its moments but isn't a patch on the old
Leslie Howard/Merle Oberon/Raymond Massey version, which itself is no classic.
The actors aren't at all to blame. Jane Seymour is suitably ravishing and portrays a fine romantic confusion when she
fears her new husband Sir Percy may really be the fop he pretends to be. Anthony Edwards was much better playing a grim
bomb defuser in the miniseries Danger UXB. He's okay as the dashing superspy with a secret identity, but seems
uncomfortable as the mincing Sir Percy, an act that has no subtlety and becomes annoying. His key speech - "They seek him
here, they seek him there ..." - is just tiresome.
In great form is a young Ian McKellen, whose name post- Lord of the Ringswill doubtless sell a fair number of
Pimpernel discs. He's snappy, ruthless and makes a fine villain, although his talent sometimes seems to be
operating in a vacuum of an unworthy script. He alone manages to inject some life and humor into a stock role, playing
Chauvelin first as a jealous suitor and then as a dangerous wounded dog. He reminds us a bit of Tom Courtenay in
Doctor Zhivago. At least he's able to make his villainy believable. Too many bad guys in adventure films make
us wonder why anyone takes them seriously.
Having Englishmen play Frenchmen has always been a handicap, with royals
putting on upperclass hauteur and the peasants talking like cockneys. The French republicans disdain the English but seem far
too English themselves, and we're denied the contrast. Familiar actor James Villiers (These are the Damned) plays
a Franco-Austrian nobleman, but he just seems his same stuffy English self.
It's just as well, because the dated nature of the story doesn't sit well with modern ideas of fairness. The Reign of Terror
is definitely the rule of a mob gone out of control, but having one's hero be the aristocratic rescuer of another nation's
aristocrats still plays like class warfare. Tradition, monarchy and the status quo had to be swept away, and stories like
the Pimpernel still seem odd when we're asked to cheer the rescue of what in reality was a wholly decadent bunch
of aristocratic scum. Perhaps Sir Percy is just saving decent, innocent aristos caught in the undertow.
The script goes through all the standard motions. The Pimpernel is able to spirit grateful aristocrats away from the
guillotine and out of the prisons as easily as if he were picking up his laundry. A gateman is fooled time and again into letting
our heroes escape, in a repetitious series of semicomic scenes. There's not enough invention to The Pimpernel's surprises
and disguises. Luckily, mistaken motives between Percy and Marguerite keep things on the romantic plane interesting. I
understand that Marguerite is more complicated in the original, that she does officially denounce another noble. An exciting
seaside castle cut off daily by the tides should provide a memorable setting for the conclusion, but the production economy
restricts the actors to Shepperton interior sets. We guess the twist ending way in advance, and it comes off rather flatly.
Clive Donner's direction is completely by-the-numbers and only the attractive cast keeps things from becoming too bland. Once
again, this kind of story desperately needs a witty script, and it just isn't there. 1
Image's DVD of The Scarlet Pimpernel doesn't look all that terrific. The flat aspect ratio is probably correct, but
the color and sharpness aren't as peppy as they should be, with skin tones washed out. The encoding is rough as well. On a
large monitor, there are terminators between contrasting areas of the screen and plenty of digital grain. It'll be adequate
for fans already excited about the show, but won't turn any heads.
The running time is six minutes short of a time listed in the IMDB, which may or may not be accurate. The difference
does align with the possibility that this is a PAL conversion running at 25 frames per second. If so, I wasn't aware of any
marked speed-up. The six minutes could also be accounted for with missing bumpers, story
re-caps and other extras that would have been there during its television run.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Scarlet Pimpernel rates:
Movie: Fair + / Good --
Video: Fair ++
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 22, 2004
1. Screenwriter William Bast is
also credited with that great work of literary finesse, the shooting script for
The Valley of Gwangi.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson