“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” (1982) Review

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“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” (1982) Review

I suspect that many fans of the DC Comics character “Batman” and the “Zorro” character would be nonplussed at the idea that a novel written by a Hungary-born aristocrat had served as an inspiration for their creations. Yet, many believe that Baroness Emmuska Orczy de Orczi’s 1905 novel, “The Scarlet Pimpernel” provided Western literature with its first “hero with a secret identity”, Sir Percy Blakeney aka the Scarlet Pimpernel. 

There have been at least nineteen stage, movie or television adaptations of Orczy’s novel. Some consider the 1934 movie adaptation with Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon and Raymond Massey as the most definitive adaptation. However, there are others who are more inclined to bestow that honor on the 1982 television adaptation with Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. I have seen both versions and if I must be honest, I am inclined to agree with those who prefer the 1982 television movie.

“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” – namely its 1982 re-incarnation – is based upon the 1905 novel and its 1913 sequel,“Eldorado”. Set during the early period of the French Revolution, a masked man and his band of followers rescues French aristocrats from becoming victims of the Reign of Terror under France’s new leader, Maximilien de Robespierre. The man behind the Scarlet Pimpernel’s mask – or disguises – is a foppish English baronet named Sir Percy Blakeney. For reasons never explained in the movie, Sir Percy has managed to gather a group of upper-class friends to assist him in smuggling French aristocrats out of France and sending them to the safety of England. During a visit to France, Sir Percy meets a young French government aide and the latter’s actress sister, Armand and Marguerite St. Just. He eventually befriends the brother and courts the sister.

Sir Percy also becomes aware of Armand’s superior and Marguerite’s friend, Robespierre’s agent Paul Chauvelin. Angered over Marguerite’s marriage to Sir Percy, Chauvelin has the Marquis de St. Cyr – an old enemy of Armand’s – executed in her name. After being sent to England to learn the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Chauvelin discovers that Armand has become part of the vigilante’s band. He blackmails Marguerite – now Lady Blakeney – into learning the identity the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Meanwhile, the Blakeney marriage has chilled, due to the news of the Marquis de St. Cyr’s execution and Marguerite’s alleged connection. But a chance for a marital reconciliation materializes for Marguerite, when she discovers the Scarlet Pimpernel’s true identity.

Thirty years have passed since CBS first aired “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL”. In many ways, it has not lost its bite. Thanks to Tony Curtis’ production designs, late 18th century England and France (England and Wales in reality) glowed with elegance and style. Not even the questionable transfer of the film to DVD could completely erode the movie’s beauty. The movie’s visual style was aided by Carolyn Scott’s set decorations, Dennis C. Lewiston’s sharp and colorful photography, and especially Phyllis Dalton’s gorgeous costume designs, as shown in the following photographs:

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I feel that screenwriter William Bast made the very wise choice of adapting Baroness Orczy’s two novels about the Scarlet Pimpernel. In doing so, he managed to create a very clear and concise tale filled with plenty of drama and action. He also did an excellent job in mapping out the development of the story’s main characters – especially Sir Percy Blakeney, Marguerite St. Just, Paul Chauvelin and Armand St. Just. I was especially impressed by his handling of Sir Percy and Marguerite’s relationship – before and after marriage. Sir Percy’s easy willingness to believe the worst about his bride provided a few chinks into Sir Percy’s character, which could have easily morphed into a too perfect personality. More importantly, Bast’s script gave Paul Chauvelin’s character more depth by revealing the latter’s feelings for Marguerite and jealousy over her marriage to Sir Percy. Bast’s re-creation of the early years of the French Revolution and Reign of Terror struck me as well done. However, I wish he had not faithfully adapted Orczy’s decision to allow the Scarlet Pimpernel and his men to rescue the Daupin of France (heir apparent to the French throne), Louis-Charles (who became Louis XVII, upon his father’s death). In reality, Louis-Charles died in prison from tuberculosis and ill treatment at the age of ten. Surely, Bast could have created someone else important for the Scarlet Pimpernel to rescue.

“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” received a few Emmy nominations. But they were for technical awards – Costume Designs for Phyllis Dalton, Art Direction for Tony Curtis and even one for Outstanding Drama Special for producers David Conroy and Mark Shelmerdine. And yet . . . there were no nominations for Clive Donner and his lively direction, and no nominations for the cast. I am especially astounded by the lack of nominations for Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. In fact, I find this criminal. All three gave superb performances as Sir Percy Blakeney; Marguerite, Lady Blakeney; and Paul Chauvelin respectively. Andrews was all over the map in his portrayal of the fop by day/hero by night Sir Percy. And yet, it was a very controlled and disciplined performance. Jane Seymour did a beautiful job of re-creating the intelligent, yet emotional Marguerite. At times, she seemed to be the heart and soul of the story. This was the first production in which I became aware of Ian McKellen as an actor and after his performance as Paul Chauvelin, I never forgot him. Not only was his portrayal of Chauvelin’s villainy subtle, but also filled with deep pathos over his feelings for Marguerite Blakeney. He also had the luck to utter one of my favorite lines in the movie in the face of his character’s defeat:

“Oh, the English, and their STU-U-U-UPID sense of fair play!”

The movie also featured some first-rate performances by the supporting cast. Malcolm Jamieson did an excellent job in portraying Marguerite’s older brother, Armand. I was also impressed by Ann Firbank, who was first-rate as the embittered Countess de Tournay; James Villiers as the opportunistic Baron de Batz; Tracey Childs as the lovesick Suzanne de Tournay; and Christopher Villiers as Sir Percy’s most stalwart assistant, Lord Anthony Dewhurst. Julian Fellowes made a very colorful and entertaining Prince of Wales. And Richard Morant proved to be even more subtle and sinister than McKellen’s Chauvelin as Maximilien de Robespierre.

After my latest viewing of “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL”, I found myself surprisingly less supportive of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s efforts than I used to be. Perhaps I have not only become more older, but even less enthusiastic about the aristocratic elite. It was then I realized that despite the presence of Marguerite and Armand St. Just, “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” is based on two novels written by an aristocrat, with views that were probably as liberal as Barry Goldwater. Oh well. I still managed to garner a good deal of entertainment from a movie that has held up remarkable well after thirty years, thanks to some lively direction by Clive Donner, a first-rate script by William Bast and superb performances by the likes of Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen.

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“THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS” (1991) Review

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“THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS” (1991) Review

The late Joan Hickson starred as Miss Jane Marple in her 11th movie that featured the elderly sleuth, created by Agatha Christie. The movie in question was “THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS”, an adaptation of Christie’s 1952 novel. 

While paying a visit to her old friend, the American-born Ruth Van Rydock, Miss Jane Marple is asked to visit the other woman’s younger sister, Carrie Louise Serrocold. All three women were friends at the same school in Italy when they were girls. Ruth is worried that something is very wrong at Stonygates, the Victorian mansion where Carrie Louise lives with her husband Lewis Serrocold. She fears that Carrie Louise may be in danger of some kind. Ruth asks Miss Marple to find out what is going on. Miss Marple learns that Stonygates has been converted into a home for delinquent boys by Serrocold, who is devoted to the idea of reforming these boys. Christian Gulbrandsen, Carrie Louise’s stepson from her first marriage and a member of the Stonygates Board of Trustees, everyone assumes he is there for a business meeting with Serrocold. The latter finally admits to Miss Marple that Later that evening, the visiting Ruth decides to show an old film of her, Carrie Louise and Miss Marple in Italy; when one of Stonybrook’s boys, an uber-nervous type named Edgar Lawson interrupts the festivities to accuse Serrocold of being his real father. While they quarreled in another room, the fuse to the house blows out. Within minutes, Gulbrandsen’s visit takes a tragic turn when he is found dead – shot in the head – inside his bedroom. Miss Marple, along with Chief Inspector Slack, scramble to find Gulbrandsen’s murderer.

From the articles I have read on the Web, “THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS” seemed to be highly regarded by many of Christie’s fans. I wish I could share their sentiments, but I cannot. I am not saying that the movie was terrible. It seemed pretty decent to me. But it did not exactly rock my boat. At the moment, I cannot put my finger on it. There is something . . . weak about the plot. One, I did not find the setting of a Victorian manor converted into a home for delinquent boys that intriguing. I suppose one has to blame Christie for creating this setting in the first place. I suspect that she was out of her league. And two, the mystery itself – the murder of Christian Gulbrandsen – did not seem particularly complicated. Judging from the title and the details that led to his murder, I did not find it particularly difficult to guess the murderer’s identity. And three, I thought the movie finished on a slightly weak note. After a murder attempt was made on another character, my attention to the movie gradually began to fade. I was not sleepy. My interest simply began to fade.

I also had a few problems with the cast. The characters of Carrie Louise Serrocold and Ruth van Rycock were portrayed by actresses Jean Simmons and Faith Brook. I had no problems with their performances. I thought both were first rate – especially Simmons, who captured Carrie Louise’s vague and slightly fey personality just right. But both actresses were at least a good twenty years younger than Joan Hickson. And I found the idea of their characters coming from the same generation as Miss Marple rather ludicrous. I also had a problem with Todd Boyce’s portrayal of Walter Rudd, Carrie Louise’s American-born grandson-in-law. At first, I thought he was English born, because I found his American accent rather questionable. I was surprised to learn that he was born in Toledo, Ohio. His family had moved to Australia when he was 16. I think what really annoyed me was that whenever he opened his mouth to speak, I heard a few bars of Western music – to indicate that the character in question was an American. (Pardon me, while I indulge in an eye roll) Thankfully, the music ceased about halfway into the film and I found Boyce’s performance a lot more enjoyable from then on.

“THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS” also had its virtues. I must admit that the cast was first rate. Joss Ackland gave one of his more sympathetic performances as the well-meaning philanthropist who fears for his wife’s safety. I have already commented upon Simmons, Brooks and Boyce. I was also impressed by Christopher and Jay Villiers, who gave enjoyable performances as the Restarick brothers – Carrie Louise’s stepsons from her second marriage. I could say the same about Holly Aird, who portrayed Carrie Louise’s granddaughter, Gina Rudd. And for the first time, I actually enjoyed David Horovitch’s performance as recurring police sleuth, Chief Inspector Slack. However, I never understood the need to bring him back. I do not recall his character appearing in the novel. As for Joan Hickson, she was perfect as Jane Marple . . . as usual. In fact, she was a real class act in this film.

Personally, I feel that “THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS” is somewhat overrated by today’s Christie’s fans. I found the plot rather unoriginal and a bit weak in the last thirty minutes. But it had a first-rate cast and decent production values. If you want a pleasant movie for a rainy Sunday afternoon, it might be the ticket for you.

“MANSFIELD PARK” (1983) Review

 

“MANSFIELD PARK” (1983) Review

Long before Patricia Rozema wrote and directed her 1999 adaptation of “Mansfield Park”, Jane Austen’s 1814 novel, the BBC aired its own adaptation some sixteen years earlier. This one came in the form of a six-part miniseries and is regarded by many Austen fans as the definitive screen version of the novel. 

“MANSFIELD PARK” told the story of Fanny Price, the oldest daughter of a former Royal Navy officer, who is sent by her parents to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle-in-law, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, at their estate called Mansfield Park, during the early 19th century. Viewed as socially inferior by her new family, Fanny is treated as half-relative/half-servant by the Bertrams. Only Edmund, the family’s second son, treats her with great kindness and love. Because of Edmund’s behavior, Fanny finds herself in love with him by the age of eighteen. But her life and the Bertrams’ lives soon encounter a force of nature in the arrival of Henry and Mary Crawford, a pair of vivacious siblings that are related to the local vicar’s wife. Henry ends up stirring excitement and romantic interest within the breasts of the two Bertram sisters – Maria and Julia. And much to Fanny’s dismay, Edmund forms a romantic attachment to the alluring Mary.

In compare to the 1999 Patricia Rozema version and the ITV 2007 movies, this 1983 miniseries is a more faithful adaptation of Austen’s novel. Considering its six episodes, I do not find this surprising. Literary fans tend to be more impressed by cinematic adaptations that are very faithful to its source. However, “MANSFIELD PARK” is not a completely faithful adaptation. Screenwriter Ken Taylor completely ignored Fanny’s questions regarding Sir Thomas’ role as a slaveowner with an estate in Antigua. Whereas Austen’s novel and the 2007 movie briefly touched upon the subject, writer/director Patricia Rozema literally confronted it. Only the miniseries ignored the topic, altogether. Judging from the fans’ reaction to this deviation from Austen’s novel, I suspect that many of them are willing to pretend that the subject of slavery was never broached in the miniseries.

Did I enjoy “MANSFIELD PARK”? Well . . . the miniseries had its moments. It allowed me to become more aware of the plot details in Austen’s 1814 novel than the other adaptations did. I enjoyed the scene featuring the Bertrams’ introduction to the Crawford siblings. I enjoyed the ball held in Fanny’s honor in Episode Four. It struck me as very elegant and entertaining. I also enjoyed the constant flirtation and verbal duels between Edmund and Mary, despite my dislike of the former character. And much to my surprise, I really enjoyed the sequence featuring Fanny’s visit to her family in Portsmouth. For once, the miniseries’ pacing seemed well paced and I enjoyed the details and production designs in the setting for this sequence. One of the actors portraying Fanny’s younger brothers turned out to be a young Jonny Lee Miller, who later portrayed Edmund in the 1999 production.

But the best aspect of “MANSFIELD PARK” turned out to be a handful of first-rate performances and Ian Adley’s costume designs. I usually do not harbor much of a high opinion of the costumes designs seen in other Jane Austen’s adaptations from the 1970s and 80s. But I cannot deny that I found Adley’s costumes not only colorful, but very elegant. I am not surprised that he earned a BAFTA TV Award nomination for Best Costume Design.

As I had stated earlier, I was also impressed by a handful of performances featured in the miniseries. One came from veteran actress Anna Massey, who superbly portrayed one of Fanny Price’s aunts, the noxious Mrs. Norris. Depended upon her sister and brother-in-law for their support, Massey’s Mrs. Norris walked a fine line between toadying behavior toward Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram and her malicious tyranny over Fanny. Samantha Bond gave a subtle and complex portrayal of the oldest Bertram daughter, Maria. Bond conveyed not only the shallow and selfish aspects of Maria’s personality, but also the dilemma that her willingness to become the wife of the disappointing Mr. Rushworth put her in. I also found myself impressed by Bernard Hepton’s performance as Sir Thomas Bertarm, owner of Mansfield Park and patriarch of the Bertram family. Hepton’s Sir Thomas came off as superficially generous, intelligent and morally absolute. He seemed every inch of the ideal English landowner and gentleman. Yet, Hepton also conveyed the corruption that lurked underneath Sir Thomas’ façade – namely the man who seemed more concern with the financial suitability of his children’s spouses than any emotional regard. Hepton also revealed with great subtlety, the baronet’s egomania and tyranny in scenes that featured the character’s efforts to coerce Fanny into accepting Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal.

I will be brutally honest. I have never been a fan of the Edmund Bertram character. Despite his kindness to Fanny and occasional wit, he strikes me as a self-righteous and very hypocritical man. Whenever I think of that scene in which Edmund rejected Mary Crawford, it still makes my blood boil. But his characterization still worked, due to Nicholas Farrell’s performance. He really did an excellent job in conveying all aspects of Edmund’s personality, both the good and the bad. Despite my negative feelings regarding Edmund’s personality, Farrell made him seem very interesting. But “MANSFIELD PARK” would have never been bearable to me without Jackie Smith-Wood’s sparkling portrayal of one of Jane Austen’s most memorable characters, Mary Crawford. Like Fanny Price, many fans have either loved or disliked this character. Count me as among the former. I absolutely adored Mary – especially in the hands of the talented Ms. Smith-Wood. With great skill, the actress conveyed all aspects of Mary’s personality – her barbed sense of humor, dislike of the clergy, her talent for manipulation, her moral ambiguity, her charm, her wit, her great warmth and generosity. I suspect that the main reason I like Mary so much is that as an early 21st century woman, I find it easy to relate to her way of thinking. Smith-Wood managed to convey the modern sensibilities of Mary’s personality, while still portraying the character as a woman of the early 19th century.

Unfortunately, the bad tends to go hand-in-hand with the good in many movie and television productions. And there are aspects of“MANSFIELD PARK” that left a bad taste in my mouth – including a few performances. One performance I did not particularly care for was Angela Pleasence’s portrayal of Fanny’s other aunt, the languid Lady Bertram. I am aware that Ms. Pleasence possesses a rather high voice. But I noticed that she had exaggerated it for her portrayal of the childish and self-involved Lady Bertram. I wish she had not done this, for I found this exaggeration very annoying. And now that I think about it, I realized that Pleasence’s Lady Bertram hardly did a thing in the miniseries that allowed the plot to move forward, except use her selfishness to protect Fanny from Mrs. Norris’ spite . . . sometimes. But I cannot blame the actress. Lady Bertram is a role that has never impressed me. I have yet to find an actress who has ever done anything with the role. I truly believe that producer Betty Billingale and director David Giles selected the wrong actor to portray the charming Lothario, Henry Crawford. Robert Burbage seemed like an affable presence and he wore the costumes designed by Ian Adley very well. But his portrayal of Henry seemed wanting. I will go further and state that I found his performance by-the numbers and his acting skills rather mechanical. Burbage’s Henry did not strike me as the attractive and sexy man who managed to flutter the hearts of the Bertram sisters. Instead, I felt as if I had been watching an earnest schoolboy trying . . . and failing to behave like a rakish seducer.

Finally, I come to Sylvestra Le Touzel’s performance as the miniseries’ leading character, Fanny Price. I am not a fan of the Fanny Price character. Yes, I admire her willingness to stick to her conviction in rejecting Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal in the face of Sir Thomas’ attempts to coerce her. But Fanny also strikes me as being priggish, passive-aggressive, illusional (to a certain extent) and worst of all, hypocritical. I also dislike Edmund Bertram, but at least I was impressed by Nicholas Farrell’s portrayal of the character. On the other hand, I WAS NOT impressed by Le Touzel’s performance. I realize that she had portrayed a socially awkward and introverted character. But I have seen other actors and actresses portray similar characters with a lot more skill. Le Touzel’s performance struck me as wooden, mannered and at times, slightly hammy. Hell, she made Burbage’s performance seem positively fluid. Le Touzel eventually became a first-rate actress. I saw her very funny performance in 2007’s “NORTHANGER ABBEY”. But I wish that Billingale and Giles had cast someone with a lot more skill to portray Fanny, twenty-eight years ago.

I find it odd that screenwriter Kenneth Taylor took it upon himself to be as faithful as possible to Austen’s novel, with his deletion of Sir Thomas’ role as a slaveowner being the only exception. However, he had failed to change some aspects of the novel that I consider to be very flawed. Taylor never allowed Fanny and Edmund to become self-aware of their personal failings. Edmund managed to self-flagellate himself for becoming emotionally involved with Mary. But I do not consider that much of a failing. Because of the pair’s failure to become self-aware of their failings, I believe they lacked any real character development. Taylor’s script could have assumed a third voice and criticized or mocked Fanny and Edmund’s lack of development. But it did not. The sequence featuring the “Lover’s Vows” play dragged most of Episode Three. By the time Sir Thomas had returned to Mansfield Park, I nearly fell asleep, thanks to the episode’s slow pacing. In fact, Giles and Taylor’s efforts to make “MANSFIELD PARK”faithful to the novel nearly grounded the miniseries to a halt on several occasions, almost making the entire miniseries rather dull.

More than anything, I had a problem with the miniseries’ finale. One, I never understood Edmund’s decision to reject Mary Crawford as his fiancée. Although Mary had condemned her brother and Maria Bertram Rushworth’s affair and elopement as folly, she had a plan to save the honors of both the Bertram and Crawford families. She suggested that they convince Henry and Maria to marry following the latter’s divorce from Mr. Rushworth; and have both families stand behind the couple to save face. This plan struck me as very similar to Fitzwilliam Darcy’s plan regarding Lydia Bennet and George Wickham in “Pride and Prejudice”. Why did Austen condone Mr. Darcy’s actions regarding Lydia and Wickham in one novel and condemn Mary Crawford for harboring similar plans in this story? Did Taylor, Giles or Willingale even notice the similarities between Mr. Darcy’s actions and Mary’s plans and see the hypocrisy? Apparently not. My last problem centered on Fanny and Edmund’s wedding in the final episode. How on earth did this happen? The miniseries made Fanny’s romantic feelings for Edmund perfectly clear. Yet, Edmund never displayed any romantic regard for Fanny, merely familial love. Even when revealing the end of his relationship with Mary to Fanny, he still expressed love for his former fiancée. But the next scene jumped to Fanny and Edmund’s wedding, without any explanation or revelation of their courtship. At least Patricia Rozema’s 1999 movie conveyed Edmund’s burgeoning romantic feelings for Fanny, before his final rejection of Mary. Giles and Taylor failed to the same in this miniseries.

I might as well say it. I will never harbor a high regard for “MANSFIELD PARK” . . . at least this version. Although its faithfulness to Jane Austen’s 1814 novel revealed the story in greater detail than the 1999 and 2007 movies, I believe there were scenes in which it should have been less faithful in order to overcome some of the novel’s shortcomings. The miniseries can boast a few outstanding performances from the likes of Anna Massey, Nicholas Farrell and Jackie Smith-Wood. But it was hampered by other performances, especially the wooden acting by lead actress, Sylvestra Le Touzel. In the end, “MANSFIELD PARK” proved to be a mixed bag for me.