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Savant PAL Region 2 Guest Review:

The Scarlet Tunic

Reviewed by Lee Broughton

Based on one of Thomas Hardy's Wessex Tales, there's nothing about The Scarlet Tunic's packaging to suggest that this little heard of film might be anything special. As it turns out, the show is actually a strong contender for the title of 'best British film of the 1990s'. I'm kind of choosy when it comes to costume dramas and period romances and I'm not that keen on the kind that like to get overly fussy or mannered in their attempts to represent the social mores of bygone days. Thankfully The Scarlet Tunic manages to evoke the manners and nuances of its period setting (England, 1802) in realistic but pleasingly succinct and understated ways. Add to this the presence of believable characters, a superbly engrossing storyline and a wonderfully emotive soundtrack score and you've got a real winner.

The Scarlet Tunic
C'Est La Vie
1998 / Colour / 1.85:1 flat letterboxed / 92 m.
Starring Jean-Marc Barr, Emma Fielding, Simon Callow, Jack Shepherd, John Sessions, Lynda Bellingham, Thomas Lockyer, Gareth Hale, Lisa Faulkner, Laura Aikman
Cinematography Malcolm McLean
Production Designer Richard Elton
Film Editor Don Fairservice
Original Music John Scott
Written by Mark Jenkins, Colin Clements and Stuart St. Paul from the short story The Melancholy Hussarby Thomas Hardy
Produced by Daniel Figuero
Directed by Stuart St. Paul


Back story: The year is 1802 and Napoleon Bonaparte rules France, Italy and the German provinces. Only the fighting forces of Great Britain stand against him and they are assisted by foreign volunteers who have chosen to join up with the English in an attempt to win back their homelands.

Captain Fairfax (Simon Callow) of the King's Hussars has his men camped on the land of a wealthy widower, Dr Edward Grove (Jack Shepherd). Grove's daughter Frances (Emma Fielding) is engaged to be married to a businessman that she does not love, Humphrey Gould (John Sessions), but he has to relocate to Bath for an extended business trip. Frances comes into contact with the leader of a group of German volunteers, Sgt Matthaus Singer (Jean-Marc Barr), and a romance soon blossoms. When talk of peace with Bonaparte reaches the camp, the Germans prepare to leave for home but Fairfax tells them that they are instead to be posted to garrisons in the East Indies. With the risk of being shot for desertion hanging over them, the Germans plot to escape to mainland Europe. Their plans are fraught with danger and they become even more complicated and precarious when Singer convinces Frances to go with them.

Over the past ten to fifteen years, British costume dramas and period romances seem to have become increasingly ponderous, cold and stuffy in the way that they present their classic literature-inspired narratives. The presence of grand stately homes, fine costumes and a gaggle of respected thespians to fill them is all well and good but if such a film has no soul, and its human elements do not demand an emotional investment from the viewer, what's the point? Interestingly, The Scarlet Tunic's small budget results in the employment of sets and costumes that are less ostentatious than those found in similar period pieces and this really works to the film's advantage. Authentic sounding but sparingly direct dialogue that is delivered in natural and unflashy ways is another real boon: some of the dialogue present here is quite precise in its construction but none of the actors are tempted to dramatically overplay their lines.

Some film adaptations of literary works suffer greatly when their screenplays are bedevilled by ill-judged re-writes and edits imposed by producers who are conscious of running times and budgets. It would perhaps be natural to assume that director Stuart St. Paul found an advantage in being at liberty to flesh out and expand upon the contents of the mere eighteen pages of text that made up Hardy's original short story but St. Paul's informative commentary track here reveals that he was actually presented with a 300 page script to direct. He subsequently fought to rewrite and pare the script down to a slightly more manageable 120 pages: still quite long but more in keeping with the film's initial budget of only �354,000. Sadly, St. Paul describes how the film's executive producers then demanded that he made several cuts to the film itself at the editing stage. Thankfully none of these production problems or shortcomings can be detected in the finished film: St. Paul appears to have simply got on with the job with stylish gusto, taking the fairly simple narrative that he fought for and pushing it along at a consistently cracking but thoroughly enjoyable pace. It's an approach which suits the occasionally jaunty character of the film just fine. Given the size of its budget, this film is a really impressive piece of work.

The film's narrative may be simple but it is brought to life by some refreshingly human characters. Dr Grove is a widower and a recluse and it is suggested that he is aware that he has become too dependant on his daughter. But he is sympathetic and progressive in his outlook. Although Humphrey Gould's marriage proposal effectively amounts to a business transaction that meets the financial requirements of both Grove and Gould, Grove makes it plain that the final decision rests with Frances: arranged marriages governed primarily by the size of the participants' dowries were the norm at this time but Grove places his daughter's happiness above such financial considerations.

It's immediately obvious that Frances could do better than Gould but St. Paul and actor John Sessions refrain from presenting Gould as a completely odious caricature and so we're not too surprised when Frances, whose isolation has prevented approaches from other suitors, accepts his speculative marriage proposal. Matthaus Singer is a soldier with a soul: he reads poetry in an attempt to escape the sadness and desperation of the battlefield and he's delighted and moved when Frances quotes Wordsworth for him. The chemistry between Barr and Fielding is quite good here. Captain Fairfax is a fairly typical, upper-class, English prig. He equates poets with revolutionaries and when he finds a poetry book about Singer's person he flies into a drunken rage screaming, "soldiers don't need to be philosophers .... they just need to do their duty and defend the realm from sedition". Lost in the fervour of his powerful and emotional outburst-cum-lecture, he winds up clasping Singer in an awkward embrace. The scene is superbly played by both actors and its content is strangely reminiscent of the bedroom encounter between Malcolm McDowell and Aubrey Morris in A Clockwork Orange.

This may have been a small production but St. Paul managed to secure the services of some good actors who were all well cast. Many of them (Jack Shepherd, Emma Fielding, Lynda Bellingham, Lisa Faulkner, et al) are best known for their TV work in the UK. John Sessions and Gareth Hale were both best known as comedians at the time that the film was made but they both play things straight here. Interestingly, during his promo interview Sessions is heard citing Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence as a prime example of a good period piece and he subsequently went on to appear in Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Jean-Marc Barr is an internationally known film star, as is Simon Callow who appeared in a number of Merchant-Ivory productions. St. Paul makes it plain that he didn't want the film to be just another stuffy costume drama and he did indeed succeed in producing something a little different: The Scarlet Tunic is true to the genre but it possesses a sense of vitality and momentum that is missing from many similar shows. In some ways the film reminds me of the genre's 1970s output: the slightly more populist and less self-conscious shows like Robert Fuest's excellent version of Wuthering Heights. And the military characters like Matthaus Singer and his brother Christoph (Thomas Lockyer) are presented in ways which make it easy to imagine 1970s cult favourites like Peter Wyngarde and Jon Finch playing the respective roles.

The inclusion of a military theme might well be another element which worked in St. Paul's favour. The soldiers' recreational time spent drinking in the local tavern, Singer illicitly slipping in and out of camp to meet up with Frances, a botched escape attempt by Strasser (Erich Redman), a sub-plot in which Christoph secretly woos a local girl (Lisa Faulkner), etc, all add a sense of excitement to the film. But two set pieces really do push the film's excitement and tension levels to the max. The first set-piece sees Singer and Frances taking advantage of Captain Fairfax's absence from camp for a day by travelling to the nearby coast. They stay longer than they should and when Singer's horse falls on the homeward journey he finds himself in a nerve-racking race to beat Fairfax back to camp. The second set-piece is the Germans' escape attempt that leads into the film's finale. (....Spoiler begins) Those who know their Thomas Hardy will have guessed by now that this film was unlikely to have a happy ending: on a dark and stormy night, Frances is en route to the beach where Singer and his men are ready to begin their journey to Europe when she spots Humphrey Gould making his way to her father's house. She decides to return home and in doing so sets in motion a chain of events which lead to a tragic but completely engrossing, nail-biting and moving denouement. This end-piece is really well executed, projecting a sense of inevitable dread before delivering its dramatic, shocking and upsetting punchline. It's not all doom and gloom though. St. Paul wanted to end the film with a sense of hope for the future and he successfully managed to do so (....spoiler ends).

The Scarlet Tunic features some good cinematography and it's all nicely reproduced here. The DVD's picture quality does fluctuate ever-so-slightly in places but St. Paul explains that this is due to the necessity of using different types of 35mm film stock (in order to best capture the film's often impressive colour schemes) and having to film under sometimes inappropriate conditions. The outdoor shots capture the beauty of the English countryside well while great effort was made to make the film's interiors look as if they were authentically lit: attempts to make rooms look as if they were actually lit by candlelight during night-time sequences work pretty well for the most part. The DVD's sound quality is excellent: John Scott's superb soundtrack score comes through loud and clear, greatly accentuating the film's dramatic and emotional peaks.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Scarlet Tunic rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent -
Sound: Excellent -
Supplements: Production featurette, behind the scenes featurette, interviews with Jean-Marc Barr, Lynda Bellingham, Emma Fielding, John Sessions, Jack Shepherd & Stuart St. Paul, biographies for Barr, Bellingham, Simon Callow, Lisa Faulkner, Fielding, Sessions, Shepherd & St. Paul, image gallery, trailers, booklet and a commentary track by Stuart St. Paul & actress Jean Heard

Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 22, 2005

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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