Surely of the 15 or so Scarlet Pimpernel adventures by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, scribe Richard Carpenter could have come up with a more entertaining and adaptable story than this plodding drama. The whole charm of the Scarlet Pimpernel is his dashing wit and swashbuckling adventures, both of which are sorely missing in the second of A&E’s three-part series.
Casting Richard E. Grant as the dandy Pimpernel/Sir Blakeney is a stroke of genius, but director Patrick Lau muzzles the actor’s showy antics in a role where more is definitely more, in favor of a convoluted political love story.
Pic begins with the Pimpernel called into service by Marquis de Rochambeau (Peter Jeffrey), a royalist who has fled France after Gabrielle Damiens (Denise Black), the bloodthirsty head of a local revolutionary regime, has taken over his Chateau in Vendee. Rochambeau implores the Pimpernel to return to France for his adopted daughter Helene (Julie Cox), whom he has in hiding at the Convent of the Visitation.
Even though France is at war with England, Blakeney accepts the dangerous mission, dismayed that his wife Marguerite (Elizabeth McGovern) insists on joining him. Their romantic, Nick and Nora-like repartee, which made the first film such a delight, soon gives way to a dark and dreary battle to find Helene, who, unbeknownst to her father, has taken up with Monsieur Henri (James Callis), a young rebel leader.
Also searching for Helene is Chauvelin (Martin Shaw), who was shamed out of service to the revolutionary government because of the Pimpernel, but who is reluctantly called back into duty. He wants to find the young woman in order to quell her father’s anti-revolutionary activities in England.
Lau’s film, which uses France’s bloody political history shamelessly to further action and not drama, labors on, especially in the second hour, with too few rewards save for a rather abrupt ending, which makes one wonder if Jeremy Strachan had some kind of accident in the editing room.
Grant’s limited and lackluster performance colors most of the secondary perfs including that of McGovern, who plays Marguerite as tired and disinterested.
Black, as Gabrielle, comes across as a rabid Adrienne Barbeau/Dana Delany hybrid, neither forceful nor seductive. Her “Madame Guillotine” is supposedly so savvy and heartless that she can unrepentantly kill a convent of nuns, but she behaves like a giddy schoolgirl when Blakeney masquerades as Chauvelin.
The dashingly handsome James Callis as Henri has unremarkable chemistry with Julie Cox, his supposed love, Helene. This could be overlooked if Carpenter offered more background and motivation for their characters.
Shaw, returning here as Pimpernel nemesis Chauvelin, offers the most layered performance; his Chauvelin’s fall from power leads to a more introspective, if not totally reformed, villain.
Tim Hutchinson’s production, filmed in the Czech Republic, is a marvel to behold, with costumes by Howard Burden and a resounding score by Michal Pavlicek and the Prague Philharmonics picking up the film’s heavy slack.