Both as a historical adventure-drama and as a Blu-ray Sharpe's Peril (2008) is a dramatic improvement over its predecessor, Sharpe's Challenge (2006). The program has a more involving story with subtler characterizations and because it was shot in 35mm look better in high-def than the Super 16mm Sharpe's Challenge. Finally, unlike the earlier show, this is offered in both its original 137 1/2-minute two-part television version and in a shortened 102-minute feature cut, and both are in high-def.
Picking up where Sharpe's Challenge left off, retired career soldier Richard Sharpe (Sean Bean) and faithful companion Patrick Harper (Daragh O'Malley) are on their way home to England from India when they're charged with delivering a bitchy young Frenchwoman, Marie-Angelique Bonnet (Beatrice Rosen) to her soldier-fiancé, Major Joubert (Pascal Langdale), at a hill fort called Kalimgong.
Along for the ride is an Ensign Beauclere (Luke Ward-Wilkinson) an eager-to-please young lad, barely a teenager, on his first assignment. He believes his fallen soldier father was a war hero but Sharpe and some of the other men know better. Engineer Major Tredinnick (David Robb) is the senior man, more than 20 years older than his pregnant wife (Caroline Carver). The contingent of East India Company troops is mainly concerned with the transport of prisoners, including a beautiful Indian princess (Nandana Sen, another exotic beauty following those in Sharpe's Challenge) and redcoat Barabbas (Amit Behl), who turns out to be the son of Obadiah Hakeswill, the man who murdered Sharpe's wife many years before.
Along the way, Sharpe and the others encounter brigands led by legendary bandit Chitu, but their main adversary is one Col. Count Dragomirov (Velibor Topic), secretly engaged in the growing and selling of opium to the Chinese. Hints of this become apparent when the party arrives at Fort Kalimgong and find the entire garrison dead save for its commander, Sharpe's old nemesis General Sir Henry Simmerson (Michael Cochrane). (In an amusing bit of business, the delirious Simmerson, suffering from exposure and dehydration after being stripped and spread eagle on an altar, praises Sharpe as his savior.) Ominously, there's no sign of Major Joubert, living or dead.
If you liked Sharpe's Challenge, chances are you'll enjoy this even more. Instead of being structured around big battle set pieces, to its advantage Sharpe's Peril is more concerned with story and characterization. Screenwriter (and sometimes actor) Russell Lewis wrote both but Sharpe's Peril has more natural yet authentic-sounding period dialogue, and the camaraderie of the heroes. There's none of the over-the-top histrionics like that found (especially with regards to actor Toby Stephens's character) in Sharpe's Challenge. In this case the lower-key approach succeeds in generating more nervous tension, not less. They play like the work of two different directors but in fact Tom Clegg (who has been with the Sharpe series since its inception) directed both. There was a delay between the two projects; perhaps Clegg was disappointed with Challenge and decided to pull the performances in a notch or two for Sharpe's Peril. Where Cochrane pretty much chews the scenery in Challenge, he's subtle and enjoyable here.
I've been told Peril's budget was lower than Challenge's but if that's so it doesn't show. As before, there's much outstanding location work in remote India and the production values are impressive. Overall I found this more movie-like than its predecessor.
Video & Audio
The bump up to 35mm from Super 16 is immediately obvious: Sharpe's Peril has better detail, color, and texture, and the location exteriors especially come off extremely vibrant. The DTS-HD 5.1 mix (supported by optional English subtitles) is state-of-the-art with much in the way of discrete sound effects. The BD-50 disc is region-free.
The packaging suggests that the 101:52 feature-length version that's included as an extra feature is in standard definition but that's not the case. Both it and the 137 1/2-minute two-parter are 1080p. The two-parter awkwardly plays as a single piece; viewers don't have the option to choose which part to watch, except via the chapter selections. Credits and a recap separate the two halves, however.
Supplements include an above average 23 1/2-minute "Making Of" featurette that goes into more detail than usual for this kind of thing. It's 16:9 but in standard-def. A photo gallery is also included.
If Sharpe's Challenge didn't make me want to rush out and see all its title character's previous adventures, Shape's Peril just may have. It's much more engaging and ultimately satisfying. The Blu-ray offers an excellent presentation regardless of which cut of the show one chooses to watch. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.