I’m not the first person to observe that The Scarlet Pimpernel is the original Caped Crusader. Like Bruce Wayne, Sir Percy Blakeney is a mild-mannered aristocrat — in this case, an 18th-century British nobleman. And like Batman, the Pimpernel dons a disguise to battle bad guys: the guillotine-happy French revolutionary regime.
It’s about time that somebody imbued this oft-told tale (created by Baroness Orczy in 1905) with a comic-book kick. Alas, this BBC coproduction doesn’t quite cut it. That’s a shame, considering they’ve found the perfect Pimpernel in Richard E. Grant (Spice World). Here’s an actor droll enough to convey Sir Percy’s foppery, yet dashing enough to pull off the Pimpernel’s derring-do. Trouble is, the film features only a few clumsily staged swashbuckling scenes, and the story line gets bogged down by dull drawing-room dialogue.
As Chauvelin, the coolly brutal Secret Police chief determined to stamp out the Pimpernel, Martin Shaw makes for a formidable foe, but Elizabeth McGovern is sorely miscast as Sir Percy’s wife. This all-American actress affects an unplaceable European accent as Lady Marguerite, a Frenchwoman who unwittingly betrays her husband.
The good news is the A&E/BBC team have two more chances to get it right: This is the first in a planned trilogy of Pimpernel films (the next two installments’ airdates are not yet determined). They’ve found a great hero in Grant and a fine villain in Shaw — now all they need is a sharper script. B-