The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)

I admit it, I’ve been going through Jane Seymour withdrawal.  It’s been weeks since we last caught up with our Muse of the Miniseries.

This time, she’s once again ideally cast in a grand spectacle.  By 1982, we probably did not need yet another retelling of Baroness Orczy’s splendid “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” (with elements of her “Eldorado” added quite seamlessly) but with a cast like this, the material seems fresh and natural.  In the 1990s, it was tried as a Broadway musical and bombed.  It clearly did not need music.  This is a swashbuckling romantic tale and the miniseries setting is the perfect way to tell it.  Three outstanding lead performances launch what could have been merely dressy and rococo into something tense and delightful. 

Sink me, it’s the French Revolution and I don’t need to tell you that means it’s a bad time to have a title, money or fame (unless you are leading the Revolution, but the Revolution had so many Revolutions the leaders kept getting killed).  The movie opens with the guillotine doing its thing, much to the adoration of the crowd, made up of the dirtiest extras of 1982, poor things.  In the prison cell where everyone is being held, one family is lucky as they are being rescued by the infamous Scarlet Pimpernel, a man of many disguises who, with his minions spirits friends out of France to safety in England.  In this particular case, it’s in coffins, which are almost checked at on of Paris’ gates, but The Pimpernel is too smart to be caught that easily. 

The Scarlet Pimpernel is really Sir Percival Blakeney (an ideally cast Anthony Andrews, who did “Ivanhoe” almost simultaneously), who has to adopt the air of foppish English gentleman in order to keep everyone off his track.  In 2011, we might call his behavior “flaming” or “over the top,” but Baroness Orczy was too proper for that.  “Surely he must be an angel in disguise,” a friend in Paris, unaware of who he is, tells him.  “Amen,” Sir Percival says while taking two hits of snuff. 

Enter Marguerite St. Just (our beloved Jane Seymour), a grand actress who is willing to leave a the stage in the middle of a performance to meet her brother Armand (Malcolm Jamieson), who was in the middle of being severely beaten when Sir Percy rode to the rescue and dispensed with two ruffians with an epee and a few jokes.  Armand, a revolutionary, is in love with a nobleman’s daughter, and it was her father who had him beaten.  Sir Percy, immediately infatuated with Marguerite, snags an invitation to a soiree. 

Marguerite’s main man is Chauvelin (Ian McKellan), a top revolutionary who goes around arresting aristocrats and “making long noble speeches.”  He’s pompous, but he’s powerful.  Just as he’s telling Marguerite about how the Reign of Terror will assure they can get married, Sir Percy arrives, working Chauvelin’s outfit from “limp cravat” to cuffs, speaking of nothing but fashion to get him to leave the room.  He’s done it on purpose to be alone with Marguerite and tell him how much he adores her.  “I don’t know if you’re mad…” Marguerite tells him when he asks her to tell him “everything…very very slowly so it will take a very very long time” “or madly in love,” he finishes her sentence. 

The Scarlet Pimpernel is the topic of an angry denunciation by Robespierre (Richard Morant) himself, who tells Chauvelin the man needs to be rooted out in order to stop giving hope to the aristocrats that they can be rescued. 

At her soiree, an agent of the Pimpernel’s had received a note and Marguerite snatched it before Chauvelin could find it.  It speaks of the Marquis de St. Cyr, the man who had her brother beaten, who is supposedly making plans to smuggle the Dauphin from his Paris prison cell.  It’s as she’s trying to puzzle it the next day that Sir Percy arrives to take her on a picnic, once again avoiding having to show papers because he shames the guard by not immediately recognizing France’s most beautiful actress.  He does romance exceedingly well, bringing with him musicians, fruit, wine and even an aristocrat smuggled in a picnic hamper who escapes while Percy kisses a dazzled Marguerite. 

Chauvelin believes that the Pimpernel must be an Englishman brought up in the French way, so that he can pass between the two cities, on guard in Paris and at ease in London.  Robespierre assigns Chauvelin to be his man in London, and Chauvelin asks to have the former ambassador Count de Tournay (Denis Lil) accompany him.  The Count is a friend of Percy’s and very much an anti-revolutionary.  He is not happy about the assignment and is sent to prison for refusing, which Chauvelin hopes will flush out the Pimpernel since de Tournay is at the center of English society in Paris.

“We must maintain our anonymity and mask our identity, even if means suffering the mockery of others, being taken for fools, fops, nitwits, even cowards,” Percy tells his friends back in London who want to brag to their “lady friends” of their exploits.  He’s brought the news that Louis XVI has been killed and de Tournay has been arrested. 

Chauvelin has discovered all of Percy’s love notes and the one she rescued from the fire and he confronts her with it after a performance one night (where she’s dressed to kill and dripping in jewels).  He says she should have brought the note to his attention, but she claims to have been confused, not knowing what to do.  Oh, but Chauvelin says he loves her and would never let anything bad happen.  Plus, it’s the man who had her brother beaten.  “You can’t honestly believe I would have a man and his entire family sent to their deaths out of spite?” she asks.  The argument only gets more heated from there, as he promises to follow her conscience over the republic always.  “Some causes can become some warped, like some men!” she says dramatically.  But, Marguerite is not always the smart cookie and when Chauvelin says Percy is back in London, she reacts so happily that Chauvelin is undone.  He opens the door to leave and Percy is standing there.  “Bonjoor Monsoor,” he says and then compliments him on his cravat.  “You’ve been taking lessons,” he jabs.  “Forget Chauvelin, forget every man you’ve ever known, but me,” Percy tells Marguerite when she says Chauvelin scares her.  Then comes a rather unfortunate lapse in writing.  “You are so…elusive,” she wonders, asking him if he’s an actor too.  “Elusive” is part of the poem circulating about The Pimpernel (“They seek him here/They seek him there/Those Frenchies seek him everywhere/Is he in heaven or is he in hell/That damned elusive Pimpernel”).  The conversation about masks and hiding and such is all a bit cloying, but this is high romance.  It can’t be avoided.

Dressed to the nines more elaborately than Liberace, has a conversation with Armand where he tells the young revolutionary he must help in rescuing de Tournay.  He admits to Armand, who has never really been 100% given to the cause, that he is The Scarlet Pimpernel.  I bet Armand regrets that crack about Percy not ever having a serious thought in his head.  Armand gets de Tournay to say he’ll go to London and take Chauvelin so he can find his sworn enemy. 

The Pimpernel outwits the same idiot guard again by dressing up as a dirty (of course) female wine merchant, by having one of his men pretend he has the plague.  The French guards arrive moments later telling the guard to stop any female wine merchant they can find and a gaggle of soldiers chase after them.  Except the guards are actually members of the Pimpernel gang and two are actually de Tournay’s wife and daughter being spirited to safety.  It’s all delicious fun.

To say that Chauvelin is upset when he hears Marguerite is going to marry Percy is an understatement.  He thinks she’s doing it because Percy is rich.  He then asks her what she wants to do about St. Cyr.  He had promised to do nothing that would betray her confidence, but now he uses it against her.  Failure to turn in an enemy of the republic is considered treason.  Soldiers come to arrest St. Cyr, and the warrant mentions Marguerite St. Just as his accuser. 

Percy and Marguerite are married in a glittering small ceremony, he actually better dressed than she.  Never have two people looked so pretty together, but there are very few brides who would let her beloved outshine her.  Anthony and Jane stare into each other’s eyes during the whole ceremony, pulling out all the stops to make this scene as bountifully romantic as possible. 

Since Chauvelin has lost his bargaining chip when de Tournay’s family escapes, he now decides he’ll follow Marguerite to London where all of society will be at her feet, thus easily finding The Scarlet Pimpernel.  That’s one big issue at the wedding party.  The other is that Percy is told St. Cyr and his family have been beheaded, and his wife’s name was on the warrant.  “From this moment on, she must never be trusted.  We cannot risk a betrayal,” he says, in one of those creaky plot twists that thankfully did not survive the 19th Century.  If he had just asked her what happened, she would have told him the truth!  But, that would rob the story of tension.  Plus, when the truth inevitably comes out, it will be a moment of supreme love, no doubt. 

Percy and his followers have their biggest escapade yet, to rescue the Dauphin.  The poor kid is being kept in prison, taught to refer to his mother as a whore.  “I detect a hint of defiance behind those eyes.  Keep at him, Fouquet, he must be all ours,” Robespierre hisses. 

The whole gang is in England, with Armand fully in on the plans to rescue the Dauphin.  Their rescue plan depends on finding even the tiniest change in the boy’s routine.  Those matter will have to wait, because foppish Sir Percy has to take Marguerite to The Prince Regent’s (Julian Fellowes) garden party.  They are the butt of all gossip: that she married him for his money, that no one else would have him, that they aren’t at all happy together.  The Prince is every bit as dandy (gay) as Percy.  At the party, Marguerite is denounced as having had St. Cyr killed, and Percy does not defend her.  “It seems, my dear, you have finally found a way to repay St. Cyr,” he says coldly.  Marguerite believes he still loves her, despite the chill that has fallen over his attentions to her.  She confronts him about his behavior in another “behind the mask” speech.  “The man I fell in love with still exists somewhere,” she says after he refuses her invitation to share her bed because he has an important appointment in town the next day to have his buckles fixed. 

Letters to Armand are intercepted and given to Chauvelin as the cat and mouse game heats up.  Chauvelin summons him back from England.  Marguerite wants him to stay and begs Percy to help as Armand is to be married.  “What has poor Armand done to be condemned to matrimony,” Percy snaps.  Marguerite runs off and Armand confronts Percy.  Armand, who knows the whole situation, tells Percy he can trust Marguerite, that she is not spying, but Percy is too focused on rescuing the Dauphin.  He assures Armand he has not ceased to love her.  “I will love her until the day I die.  That is the tragedy,” he sighs before picking up the escape plans once again. 

Chauvelin arrives in England to taunt Marguerite and they verbally spar in some snappy dialogue and then Chauvelin asks her outright to spy for him (“for France,” he corrects her) and find The Scarlet Pimpernel.  She refuses, no matter what.  But, Chauvelin has a trump card: the letter to Armand.  He blackmails her by saying, “I will have your brother’s head or The Pimpernel’s.”  This puts Marguerite in rather a tight spot, just the kind of thrilling spot romance novels depend upon. 

Percy has seen Chauvelin talking to Marguerite and tries to find out what she knows, not even trying trickery, just asking her openly.  She lies and says she hasn’t seen Chauvelin, which disappoints Percy.  “If anyone will catch The Scarlet Pimpernel, it won’t be Chauvelin…he can’t even tie his cravat,” Percy jokes, but Marguerite is angry.  He tries to get her to confide in him, but she’s so burnt by his treatment of her that she can’t.  “What’s the point?  We don’t even speak the same language anymore,” she snaps. 

At a ball that evening, Chauvelin has paid off the waiters to spy for him and one of them sees one of the cohorts passing a Pimpernel letter to another cohort.  Percy launches into his Pimpernel poem again and Chauvelin asks Marguerite to dance so he can find out her decision.  She agrees to help, having no choice and he tells her to find out what is in the note.  “How?” she asks.  “I leave that to you ingenuity as a consummate actress,” he says snidely.  Percy leaves the room to play a game with the Prince and a giant dance number ensues.

Marguerite leads the gang in a second spirited number, trying to get the letter out of Sir Andrew’s cuff, much to the dismay of his fiancee.  Marguerite pretends to start fainting, and Andrew takes her out of the room.  “I only need to close my eyes for a moment,” she says and when she does, he pulls out the letter to read it.  As he starts to burn it, she races to grab it and pretends she loves the smell.  She knocks something off the table so she can read the note and then pretends she thinks it’s a love note.  Marguerite dutifully reports what she’s read of the letter to Chauvelin.  There is to be a meeting in the library at midnight. 

As midnight draws near, the tension escalates.  Chauvelin sweats nervously.  Marguerite is in the library and Percy arrives, telling her not to turn around.  She’s there to warn him that Chauvelin knows and tells The Scarlet Pimpernel she’s doing this to save her brother.  Percy tells her she’s already been responsible for St. Cyr and his family’s deaths, and explains how Chauvelin blackmailed her.  “If this is true, you are a very brave woman,” Percy tells her, absolutely throbbing with love for her now that he’s learned the truth.  “I don’t even know who you are,” she says, never bothering to even sneak a look.  Another creaky plot twist, I know, but the dialogue is gushing and romantic.  “Touch me, so that I may know you are real,” she begs of him as he stands behind her.  He puts his hand on her shoulder and she feels the ring that contains his pimpernel mark.  Does she know?

At midnight, every clock in the house chimes and Chauvelin rushes to the library anxiously, with Percy sending Marguerite out the window.  Andrew and the others know better than to enter the library and Percy pretends to be asleep on a couch.  Chauvelin certainly doesn’t suspect him, but he does find one of Marguerite’s earrings on the floor and a few lights go off in his nefarious head.  Percy flies off to do his duty, to his yacht at Dover, and when Andrew asks him what he should tell Marguerite, he says, “tell her I love her…more than ever!”  Marguerite catches Chauvelin on his way out the door on his way back to France and tells her he will let Armand live, but only if he catches The Scarlet Pimpernel. 

Jane Seymour has a terrific opportunity to play it up when she figures out her husband is The Pimpernel.  He leaves a note for her in under a picture of himself, some tripe about having to go to the country.  She looks up at the picture and sees the pimpernel crest on his ring, the one she felt on her shoulder.  She whirls around the room and sees pimpernels all over the place.  “The Scarlet Pimpernel…Percy…oh God, what have I done?” she whispers melodramatically. 

In Paris, everyone is bobbing around the plot regarding the Dauphin, everyone trying to get his hands on him.  There’s the Austrian Ambassador who wants to collect a ransom, but is also part of The Pimpernel’s gang.  There is Armand, not particularly bright and almost giving away the whole plot, and Chauvelin’s goons trying to arrest anyone they can.  Chauvelin sends orders to arrest Armand, who is in the arms of his fiancee.  She’s clever and pretends she’s with a different Monsieur St. Just, one who is more important than Armand.  The goon believes it, but Armand still has to escape via the roof so no one finds him.  When Chauvelin finds out about the St. Just mistake, he’s livid and decides to handle it himself, sending spies to Armand’s fiance’s house, though he’s long gone.

As for Percy and his comrades, they finally have their plan to get the Dauphin to safety.  The plot depends on exact timing and care, with any error absolutely fatal.  Armand is told he must stay in England and Percy reminds of his “oath to the league.”  “You must learn to trust me my friend,” Percy tells Armand, who is worried about his beloved Louise.  Percy promises Louise will be safe in England. 

Marguerite is the one who is going to spoil the whole affair by convincing one of his friends to take her back to France.  Or maybe Armand will do it (these St. Justs are not particularly bright) by slipping out of Percy’s chamber and returning to Louise, whose house is being watched.  Percy is awake and knows Armand has escaped, so he must have a plan. 

As for the Dauphin, the moment for escape comes exactly at noon when his servants are changed.  The old ones are sent packing and new ones replace them.  When the new ones go to look in at the boy, they see the back of his head under a blanket.  Percy, in disguise as a half-wit, fools the gate guard AGAIN (the joke is getting a bit stale) and leaves Paris with the Dauphin, only moments before Chauvelin discovers it’s a doll in the bed, with the calling card from The Scarlet Pimpernel.  Time is so important, and no one is there in the countryside to meet Percy and the Dauphin.  Percy kills time by revealing himself to the boy as soldiers race out of Paris.  Percy will have to make a dash for it himself.  He’s in a heavy cart and soon the soldiers are on his heels, firing a shot into his shoulder.  The cart is destroyed, but Percy and the boy are not with the remains.  They have escaped the hollow of a tree and finally come in contact with Andrew.  He then has to return to Paris to rescue Armand. 

Percy, in all his finery, goes to Louise’s house, but of course it’s a trap.  Chauvelin is there waiting for him, having already captured Armand.  Percy, slipping back into his fop act, stalls for time in trying to bargain Armand and his life for the Dauphin’s and then tries to escape, but is caught.  Marguerite arrives at Chauvelin’s office with a letter of clemency from the Prince of Wales.  She demands to see Percy and Chauvelin obliges.  Percy is in the dank horrible prison and Chauvelin gives them two minutes alone (well, not quite alone since he’s watching through the door).  There’s a giant embrace, swelling music and a big kiss.  “How I prayed you would come!” he says and they both forgive the other.  Chauvelin has agreed to let Percy go if he tells the revolutionaries where the Dauphin is, but Percy refuses.  He suddenly thinks of a plan, gives her the ring and there is a plan.

The details of the plan are complex, with Percy, Marguerite and Chauvelin all trying to outsmart each other on their way to the Dauphin.  Half of Paris seems to be chasing after him.  The other half are those grubby extras.  “Two birds with one stone, the Dauphin and The Scarlet Pimpernel. My seat on the committee is assured due to you primitive noblesse oblige,” Chauvelin brags to Percy, his prisoner in a carriage on the way to the fortress where the Dauphin is being held.  Chauvelin arrives to find everyone gone, with only a Friar left to tell Chauvelin that the boy has been taken already to Spain and thence to England (“just as I suspected,” sneers Chauvelin, not knowing the boy has been taken to Austria).  Chauvelin begs for Marguerite’s life, but she wants to die with him.  He begs her to trust him.  “I shall return to haunt you,” he tells Chauvelin and kisses Marguerite before being taken to the courtyard for execution.

Percy is stood before a firing squad and we hear “ready…aim…fire” as Chauvelin almost has an orgasm.  He orders Marguerite and Armand back to Paris for execution.  But, come on, you don’t believe Percy really died!  Of course the soldiers are Percy’s men and he introduces them to Chauvelin gladly, his own soldiers tied up in a closet.  Percy is confident, but Chauvelin says the only way off the island fortress is through his soldiers standing guard, but out another window, Percy shows Chauvelin his yacht waiting for the league.  Chauvelin grabs a sword and the two battle it out with swords, as expecting in this kind of 18th Century schmaltz-fest.  Marguerite worries over every clash of the blades as the two run around the entire set, cutting candles, jumping over stairs and, in Chauvelin’s case,  having that horrid cravat undone by Percy button by button.  Percy is a much better swordsman, of course, but he toys with Chauvelin. Percy wins and volunteers to go back to Paris to fetch Armand’s Louise.  Armand begs for the honor and Percy is happy to let him have it so he can go back to England with Marguerite. 

On the boat back across the channel, it’s Marguerite’s turn to recite the Pimpernel poem.  “Sink me, the lady’s a poet,” Percy says before they dissolve into the final kiss. 

Romance and chivalry reign supreme and the miniseries nailed every touch that Baroness Orczy so lovingly tucked into her work. 

Categories: Romance Miniseries

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