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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL -- DVD review by porfle

If you're like me, you've always wondered what the hell a "scarlet pimpernel" is anyway. Well, thanks to the 1982 British TV adaptation of Baroness Emmuska Orczy's 1905 novel THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL--now available on DVD from Acorn Media--I now know that it's a humble wayside flower, as well as the chosen symbol of one of literature's first superheroes.

As Bruce Wayne is the playboy alter ego to Batman, so is Sir Percy Blakeney (Anthony Andrews, THE KING'S SPEECH) the painfully foppish, effete, and rather silly fascade behind which the dashing Scarlet Pimpernel operates in his quest to free as many innocent French aristocrats as possible from the guillotine during the French Revolution's "Reign of Terror." And like both Batman and Sherlock Holmes (not to mention the Lone Ranger and Baretta), he's also a master of disguise, a talent used to great effect during some of his more daring rescues.

As filmed by director Clive Donner (WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT, THE NUDE BOMB), the story is nicely atmospheric but not especially dynamic at first, with a superficial quality that gives way only when we start discovering the fiercely principled and courageous crusader behind Sir Percy's mask of frivolity. He's exceedingly droll when flirting with the ladies or dealing with the likes of Chauvelin, chief agent for the Committee for National Security ( Ian McKellen), whose mission, besides keeping the executioner busy, is to find out the Pimpernel's secret identity at all costs.

Needless to say, Chauvelin eventually begins to suspect Sir Percy, which complicates the Scarlet Pimpernel's plans to rescue the child Dauphin, heir to the French throne. Adding to the story's dramatic entanglements is his marriage to the actress Marguerite St. Just (a stunningly beautiful Jane Seymour), whom Chauvelin will ruthlessly use as a pawn against him. The troubled relationship between Percy and Marguerite is nicely portrayed as mistrust and miscommunication keep them painfully aloof from one another.

While there's a decent amount of suspense during certain passages, THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL rarely generates much of a sense of urgency, and we find ourselves mainly appreciating it for its sometimes breathtaking locations and some very enjoyable performances from the leads. It's fun seeing a handsome young Ian McKellen handling such a juicy bad-guy role here, tastefully underplaying for the most part but with the occasional dramatic flourish.

As for Anthony Andrews, he seems somewhat superficial until we begin to see hints of the character's depth. Still, even the more cartoonish side of Sir Percy is fun--his frequent exclamations of "Odds fish!" and "Sink me!" have a certain goofy charm, and one can appreciate how much he enjoys pretending to be such a harmless fool until the time comes to take action. This is especially true during the finale, in which we get one of those honest-to-goodness fencing duels to the death between the good guy and the bad guy while the fair lady looks on.

The DVD from Acorn Media is in 4.3 full screen with Dolby Digital sound and subtitles in English. No extras. Picture quality is mostly good despite some flaws due to age.

I enjoyed THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL even though it didn't exactly keep me on the edge of my seat, thanks to the appeal of the stars (Jane Seymour is a particular joy to look at here), a fairly interesting script by William Bast (known as the first biographer of cult icon James Dean as well as a prolific author of TV scripts and such films as THE VALLEY OF GWANGI) and some lush production values. Plus, I can now scratch "find out what the hell a scarlet pimpernel is" off my bucket list.

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