Seeking the Elusive: A Movie Review of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” by Avellina Balestri

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Year: 1982 
Filming: Color 
Length: 142 minutes 
Genre: Action/Drama/Romance 
Maturity: PG (for mild language and sexual innuendos)
Cast: Anthony Andrews (Sir Percy Blackney), Jane Seymour (Marguerite St. Just), Sir Ian McKellan (Paul Chauvelin), Malcolm Jamieson (Armande St. Just), Dominic Jephcott (Sir Andrew Ffoulkes), Christopher Villiers (Lord Anthony Dewherst), Denis Lill (Count de Tournay), Ann Firbank (Countess de Tournay), Tracey Childs (Suzanne de Tournay), Richard Charles (The Dauphin), Julian Fellowes (The Prince Regent)
Director: Clive Donner 
Personal Rating: 4 Stars
 ***
I first read Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel in grade-school, and for a girl with my imagination and love of romantic historical adventures, I found the concept exhilarating. After all, this was the prototype of the all the swashbuckling heroes with dual identities, from Zorro to Superman. But instead of the Colonial Southwest or the bustling Metropolis, this one was planted firmly in the old world and commuted between the historical rivals, England and France. Just my style, and obviously I’m not the only one who thought so since quite a few film adaptations sprung to life. The following film is just such a dramatic endeavor.

Anthony Andrews stars as Sir Percy Blackney, English gentleman and seemingly incorrigible fop who most everyone views as a harmless and brainless party animal with a gourmet taste for clothing and travel. However, his sojourns in France reveal another side to his character: that of the Scarlet Pimpernel, daring rescuer of aristocrats condemned to the guillotine by the French Revolutionary government! With an array of disguises at his disposal and a handful of chosen companions at his side, his pursuers are unable to bring him in, and his successes across the channel make him the toast of the table back home in England.


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During one of his missions in France, Percy rescues one Armand St. Just from a severe beating and falls in love with his glamorous sister, Marguerite St. Just, a French actress who is soon drawn to the passion she detects beneath Percy’s sleepy-eyed countenance. But there a slight problem: someone is already courting Marguerite, and it’s none other than Paul Chauvelin, the ruthless agent of the Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety whose greatest aspiration is to capture The Scarlet Pimpernel! In spite of his realization of the danger, Percy persists in his wooing, and charms Marguerite into accepting his proposal of marriage.

But just a few hours after their marriage in an elegant Catholic ceremony, Percy learns some shocking news that changes everything. Circumstantial evidence indicates that Marguerite betrayed a royalist family to the Republican government, and the entire family was guillotined as a result! The marriage swiftly turns cold, and Percy retreats into his make-believe shell of shallow snobbery, much to Marguerite’s confusion and disillusionment. Meanwhile, in his professional life, the Scarlet Pimpernel and his loyal band (now including Armand St. Just) hatch a plan to rescue King Louis XVI’s young son. But Chauvelin begins to suspect Sir Percy is more than he seems to be, and travels to England to find out for himself.

Meeting up with a disgruntled Marguerite, Chauvelin threatens to have her brother Armand arrested for secretly cooperating with The Scarlet Pimpernel unless she will help him hunt down his prey. She has no idea that her husband is the man, and is reluctantly pressured into spying for the French at an elaborate gala including the Prince of Wales among his guests. She passes on bits of information to Chauvelin, but then is overcome with remorse and tries to contact the Pimpernel to warn him. The result is a shocking discovery and climactic finale in a fortress on the rocky French coast.


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I enjoyed this film because it breathed new life into Baroness Orczy’s classic adventure novel series, and ironed out some of the vaguer bits from the book and other movie adaptations without straying too much into the land of revision. I believe the plot filled in some of the gaps in the relationship between Percy and Marguerite and also did a better job illustrating the past relationship between her and Chauvelin. Since this movie did draw from material in both the original book The Scarlet Pimpernel and the third book in the series El Dorado there was certainly a roomier feel.

It must always be brought to the fore that this is a made-for-TV movie, produced in the ‘80’s, so the artistic quality is what it is. The background music is fits some of the acting in over-dramatic flair. That having been said, the costuming is generally a treat to behold. I love Marguerite’s riding outfit in particular, and all of Percy’s gentleman attire (cravats and all!) are delightful to behold. However, as I have mentioned in past film reviews, I believe Hollywood goes the extra mile with the low-cut bodice style of the 18th century, trying to heighten sex appeal, which is pretty much a cheap trick to boost ratings through lustful eyes. Another rather unnecessary addition involves Armand’s “sleeping around”, although this is a brief interlude and was found in the third book as part of his character.

Getting back to the acting, I feel that Anthony Andrews tended to overdo the fop part to the point of being quite obnoxious and rather corny. However, to his credit, he also did an excellent job candidly revealing the passion beneath the exterior in certain scenes. Once such scene was when he suddenly revealed his dual identity to Armand. Another was when he fought to conceal his feelings of disgust from Marguerite after learning of her supposed betrayal on their wedding day. Also, he makes a good “gentleman charmer”, from quipping (“They seek him here, they seek him there…”) to romancing (“You don’t know me now, but you’ll have the rest of your life to find out!), and fencing (can’t help but enjoy watching the final duel, when Percy “defrocks” Chauvelin by cutting the buttons from his coat!).


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Jane Seymour managed to “redeem” the character of Marguerite in my opinion (in spite of the hair style that sort of looks like a poodle sitting on her head!). I never really liked her in the book or alternate story adaptations because she was portrayed as selfish and whiney, growing cynical and flippant towards her husband and refusing to contradict the accusation against her to test Percy and see if he would love her even if she had sent that family to their deaths. Percy could not. In this film version, however, Marguerite is a much sweeter and more loving character, who is deeply hurt and confused by Percy’s sudden coldness, and takes for granted that he would believe her to be innocent of such cruelty.

Furthermore, even though he is disillusioned with her, she never completely gives up on him. She indicates this as they return home from a social function, explaining that she is confused why he should play the fool in private as well as public. He mutters that perhaps this in fact the real Percy after all, but Marguerite retorts that she will never believe that. Also, she never loses her own innate goodness, and even when she is unsure of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s identity, she still makes an effort to warn him about Chauvelin after she was forced to provide him with information. This leads to a deeply romantic scene in which Marguerite speaks with Percy standing behind her in the shadows, not knowing who he is, but sensing something familiar about him. She then tells him that she was innocent of the betrayal, and asks him to lay his hand on her shoulder to assure her that he is real.

For those who are fans of The Lord of the Rings, the first response upon seeing Ian McKellan playing Paul Chauvelin is: “It’s Gandalf!!!” Of course, recognizing this point might take a few scenes, as he’s quite a bit younger in this flick, but his voice is wonderfully sardonic and his facial structure memorable. And, like his fellow British actors Basil Rathbone and Laurence Olivier, he has the talent of being an equally good villain as he is a hero, and a very fine fencer! (Note: does anyone find is slightly humorous how every single character in this movie, whether they are supposed to be French or English, have proper BBC accents?)


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I definitely think this portrayal of Chauvelin fills him out and explains why Marguerite chose to part company with him, which is refreshing after the vagueness of the book.

Basically, she explains that she has become increasingly aware of the way the revolution had made Chauvelin ruthless and cold-blooded, in contrast to the young idealist she had originally fallen in love with and supported. He has changed beyond recall, to the point of betraying her confidence and maliciously implicating her in the arrest and execution of a royalist family to destroy her marriage to Percy.
The storyline is definitely from a royalist slant, which fits in with Baroness Orczy’s own experiences as an aristocratic exile who had to flee a revolution in Hungary as a girl. Of course, looking at the broad scope of history, I would have to agree with her that most revolutions do create a domino effect of anarchy followed by a worse tyranny than the original one (chalk it up to fallen human nature…). That having been said, I would definitely put in a good word for many of the original revolutionaries who had justified complaints against the arrogance and folly of the establishment.

But beyond historical realities, I believe there is something about The Scarlet Pimpernel that taps into our deepest yearnings for romance and adventure, heroism and even an element of hierarchical inequality (who can deny the magic of the monarchy, the mystical hereditary right to reign, even among Americans like us?). As C.S. Lewis once said, all these things are “the tap-root to Eden”, something integral to the human consciousness that set us apart from all living things as story-tellers and yarn-weavers. Also, while Sir Percy Blackney dedicated to an old-fashioned chivalric honor and enjoys gourmet living, he is willing to risk all the comforts of his life in France and act the part of the insipid fool in England. This lack of recognition is epitomized by the wayside English flower that he uses as his symbol, and stands out poignantly as a symbol for all unsung heroes.


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Avellina Balestri

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