St. Ives (1998)     


Reviewer: Charity Bishop

Pegged as a romantic comedy "in the style of Sense & Sensibility, Emma, and An Ideal Husband," St. Ives is loosely based on a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. The best praise to be offered this film is witty satire; the worst would be to peg it as predictable and "it could have been great." The sarcasm is there, but the innocent humor isn't. 

Captain Jacques St. Ives (Jean-Marc Barr) is thoroughly tired of fighting duels. He receives at least six a day from his hot blooded French fellow captains. Because the military has strict regulations about dueling outside one's rank, Jacques sets out to get himself demoted so he can spend less time killing people and more time wooing a beautiful French Opera singer. His plans go wrong and he winds up a private on the battlefield. Wanting to earn his captain's title back, Jacques makes a halfhearted attempt to surround twenty British soldiers (all by himself) and instead is captured. They ship him to Scotland along with other prisoners of war, where he is allowed to make wooden carvings to sell to locals. One of the few who frequent the prison walls in search of interesting trinkets is Miss Gilchrist (Miranda Richardson) and her beautiful niece Flora (Anna Friel).

The young woman is captivated by one of Jacques' carvings, a little wooden box with his family coat of arms engraved on it. She recognizes the insignia as belonging to a local former French aristocrat who fled during the Revolution. He attempted to persuade his son to bring his wife and children to England, but the son refused. The family was caught up to and believed slaughtered by Revolutionists, all except the eldest boy Alian (Jason Isaacs), who now resides in England and is due to inherit his grandfather's vast estates. Loathing Alian's womanizing practices and outright vulgarity, his grandfather lives in hope that Jacques is his missing grandson, and makes arrangements for his escape from the prison. Flora is inevitably drawn into the scheme, along with her would-be suitor Major Chevening (Richard E. Grant)... who has become distracted by none other than her aunt!

As one might imagine, chaos ensues with plenty of tongue in cheek humor and some truly hilarious plot twists. St. Ives (pronounced "San Tier") has quite a bit going for it merely with the casting. Richard E. Grant does humor very well and his scenes with Miranda Richardson are very memorable. The whole thing is very ridiculous but fails to have the interest of a Wilde piece. We know five seconds in that this is going to be an insane ride... when Jacques fights a duel and is faced with five more offers at breakfast. There is some witty dialogue and clever double meanings packed into the screenplay but mostly it plays off predictable tricks. Once you catch sight of the villain, you know where the plot is going, however long it takes to get there. Thus said, it wasn't utterly forgettable. It's really a pity that content becomes an issue because with some trimming it could have been an innocent, brainless romp in the style of The Importance of Being Earnest.

One of the first scenes finds Jacques in bed with his French girlfriend (who later marries his best friend). We see upper nudity several times on her while it goes in and out of a montage of battle scenes. Completely nude men jump in and out of a washing ditch at the prison. I wasn't warned of this and had to do some hasty eye-averting. After seeing Jacques charm Flora, Chevening asks him for some advice on romance. Jacques says the tongue is very important, but then hastily adds that dialogue is everything. He gives Chevening a speech to recite about rosy lips and peach-like cheeks; one of the lieutenants fails to overhear it all and instead obviously thinks something is going on between them, since he hastily backs out. Later the same plump fellow wears "perfume" around Chevening and talks under his breath after the major has left, implying he has romantic feelings for him. He also pounds the man on the back when the major is chocking, and leaves his hand there a moment longer than necessary.

To distract Chevening from searching the house, Flora's aunt draws him into a bedroom and asks if he still thinks she's lovely. He says that she is, and she makes a passionate offer to let him "have her." It scares the living daylights out of him and he flees for his life. In this same scene, Flora's nightgown is slightly sheer on top. Later they are attacked by fiends and tied together which inevitably lead to being found in a questionable position. Our introduction to Alian has him kicking a prostitute out of the carriage, then insulting her abilities and finally putting a coin down her chemise. The last shot of the film has a newly married couple running through the house and tumbling onto bed together before pulling closed the bed curtains. The content in the first half is offensive, but tones down thereafter. There is some dueling violence; men are shot and killed or stabbed through the heart. There is also mild abuse of deity, usually played for laughs. The sexual jokes and gags were in poor taste and the film really didn't do a whole lot of character development. St. Ives wasn't horrible but also isn't a movie I'd watch more than once. There's just nothing worthwhile enough to overlook the offensive elements.