The Scarlet Pimpernel (1983)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

 

Inspired by the numerous best-selling novels by the Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel comes to life in this brilliant adaptation by the BBC. Never has Jane Seymour been more beautiful as the charming Marguerite, a French actress and wife of the elusive and foppish Percy, played ideally by Anthony Andrews with wit and flair. And we mustn't forget the evil Chauvelin; Ian McKellen turns on persuasion, charm, and bloodthirsty cruelty to make his villain memorable. The costuming is wonderful, the film surprisingly without moral flaws, and the storyline manages to survive dramatic changes.

 

France is at its worst. Heads fall by the hour beneath the cruel blade of the guillotine who takes the innocent as well as the guilty. No one is safe except for those who are rescued by the gallant Scarlet Pimpernel. His identity is unknown, his manner different by the day... but all of France and even the keen foresight of Citizen Chauvelin cannot uncover him. But if one were to travel to England and make inquiries, one would be shocked to learn that the dashing rogue hero is none other than the greatest fop in all of London. Sir Percy Blakeney is a British aristocrat, ever popular with the nobility and the Prince of Wales. In all appearances he is a useless idiot, but by night he rescues nobility from their horrible fate. He is unattached until one evening, when he rescues young Armand St. Just from a beating... and is introduced to the boy's beautiful sister Marguerite, France's most beautiful and acclaimed actress.

 

The ravishing belle swiftly wins over his heart but is torn between her new and mysterious lover and her former beau Chauvelin, who has been ordered by the government to learn the identity of the Pimpernel. When one of Percy's dearest friends is cast into jail to be used against the British government in a daring spy plot, he must take Armand into his confidence but keep everything a secret from Marguerite. In the meantime, Chauvelin's jealousy has turned itself into a broiling rage and he uncovers a secret note in Marguerite's papers that could place her in danger of conspiracy against France. But this is merely the backdrop, for what lies ahead is a spellbinding tale of romance, suspense, and gallantry as Percy struggles to retain the woman he loves and yet not betray himself to his cunning enemies.  Full of beautiful period costuming, moving music, and memorable performances by all involved, The Scarlet Pimpernel will please one and all.

 

It does divide from the book to a somewhat large degree but some of the changes are worthwhile... we are given the ability to watch Percy's courtship of Marguerite, when in the book they were already wed. It also takes the opportunity to blend the first book with the second, Eldorado, to give the film more tension and suspense. Anthony Andrews as Percy is idealistic; his transformations and costuming are nothing less than genius, whether he undertakes the grim countenance of a mortician or the haggard appearance of an old hag. The film is largely devoid of objectionable content save for some profanity and the occurrence that Armand is living with Suzanne without the vows of marriage. They are seen occasionally in the same bed but no activity is ever shown. Chauvelin at one point makes an indirect attempt to seduce Marguerite away from her husband with dialogue (telling her surely Percy is not 'man enough' to make her happy); she is infuriated and sends him from the house. There's one or two occasions of light innuendo and it's really a joke on fops, since Percy masquerades as one in order to keep away suspicion. (At his remark at being considered "fools, fops, nitwits... even cowards," one of his League replies, "That's the easy part -- the hard part is not being able to boast of our exploits to the ladies!") The film is quite often hilarious, full of wit and jest, but is also serious and often suspenseful.

  

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a lot of fun and has many lessons to teach about friendship, honor, risking your life for the cause of good, and compassion toward fellow man. Percy has more fun teasing and humiliating Chauvelin than seriously doing him harm; their fencing bout is extremely well choreographed, humorous and non-bloody. Violence is more implied than actually seen although we do glimpse a fake-looking detached head from the back. Men and women are lead up to the guillotine and we see the blade fall, only to be cranked back up bloody. My only true complaint can be found in the previously mentioned fencing sequence; they chose not to score it, which gives the film less of an emotional impact. The dancing is very well done, the hairstyles outrageous, the wit side-splitting, and the romance breathtaking. Perhaps not as new as A&Es' version, but more family-friendly and truer in character to the book, rent this one on a rainy night and enter the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.


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