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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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?)
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.
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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