30 November, 2008

Sharpe’s Peril. TV/DVD review.

Shown on UK ITV as two episodes each of 90 minutes including advert breaks and credits. Total running time probably a little over 2.5 hours without breaks.

Set in India in 1818, Sharpe’s Peril is a TV movie very loosely based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels featuring Richard Sharpe, rifleman hero of the Napoleonic Wars, in India. Cornwell’s novels were set during Sharpe’s early career, before the Peninsular War, but Sean Bean would now be too old to play a young Sharpe so the TV movie is set after Waterloo.

Colonel Sharpe and Sergeant Patrick Harper are travelling through India on their way to Madras, when Sharpe is asked to escort a beautiful French blonde to the next hill station where she is to meet her fiance, Major Joubert. As a notorious bandit called Chitu is raiding in the area, Sharpe is glad to fall in with an East India Company supply convoy. He was hoping to leave the blonde with them and ride on alone, but when the convoy is attacked by bandits Sharpe is the only officer able to take effective command. When they reach the hillfort they find the garrison slaughtered and Major Joubert missing, along with the Company record books. Sharpe now has to shepherd the column through 300 miles of hostile territory, battling against bandit raids from without and treachery within. What nefarious business is going on and what has opium got to do with it? Is the seemingly heroic Company cavalry commander Colonel Dragomirov all he appears? What has happened to the French blonde’s fiance? Of course all is not what it seems, and Sharpe has ample opportunity to prove his heroism in a desperate journey and a still more desperate last stand.

So far, so classic Sharpe. Lots of action, a pretty woman, some dubious double-dealing to give the plot some unlikely twists, and impressive photography among India’s spectacular landscapes. Unfortunately, the film reminded me of nothing so much as Eric Morecambe’s piano technique, “I’m playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order!”.

It seemed to be a loosely connected series of exotic scenes strung on a gossamer-thin thread of plot. A snake pit. Bandit raids. A beautiful blonde with the sort of bosom one normally associates with Andrew Davies adaptations, who insists on riding off alone in bandit country and duly having to be rescued. Fight scenes. Senior officers who are incompetent and/or corrupt. A surly, mutinous and corrupt Sergeant. More fight scenes. A shiny young ensign who really didn’t deserve his fate. A scene in an Indian palace where the beautiful blonde is dressed up in scanty Indian costume (reminiscent of the banquet scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but without the comedy). Sharpe getting seriously wounded and having to be tended by the beautiful blonde, but apparently completely healed by the next fight scene. Nefarious wheeler-dealing by a posh officer. Did I mention the fight scenes?

Some events seemed to defy logic completely. Faced with a deep river to ford, Sharpe decides to turn all the baggage elephants and horses loose and cross it on foot. Um, wouldn’t it have been more sensible to ferry everybody across on the elephants and then abandon the animals once everyone was safely on the other side? (But that would have deprived the audience of Sharpe in a wet shirt and the beautiful blonde in a clinging wet dress.) Is it really likely that a French army officer would have been trusted with an East India Company hill station after England and France had been fighting each other across Europe for a decade? Why did the film have a beautiful Indian princess who apparently played no role whatsoever, not even as eye candy? And the ending was not so much a deus ex machina as a rabbit out of a hat.

I wonder if the film was edited down to a shorter running time in a hurry. If it had originally been intended for, say, three or three and a half hours and then had to be cut to fit the available slot, that could account for some of the cart-sized holes in the plot, and the apparently unemployed Indian princess if her storyline ended up on the cutting room floor.

Sean Bean was as moody and truculent a Sharpe as ever, and Patrick Harper provided a welcome note of humour. The other characters were rather flat in comparison. The beautiful blonde in particular would have qualified for a TSTL* award in a romance novel, going out for a ride on her own in hostile country having just been warned that there were bandits about. I hoped she was going to turn out to be a double agent, which would have been an interesting and rational explanation for her behaviour.

Now, action movies aren’t required to be realistic. They depend on a certain amount of larger-than-life Romance, in the older sense of the word. But turning a stream of unlikely events into a narrative that’s so much fun that you’re glued to it even though you know it’s pure hokum, is a rare and precious skill. The better James Bond films have it, as does Cornwell himself in (most of) his novels . I’m afraid Sharpe’s Peril isn’t in that league.

AA Gill in the Times noted that HarperCollins were credited as co-producers and wondered if the idea was to make you turn off the TV and pick up a book. I wouldn’t be quite that harsh, although if you’re new to Sharpe don’t judge the character or the books by this film. I’d categorise it as a pleasant and undemanding glossy action flick, designed to be watched for the fight scenes, the girl and the bit where the hero takes his shirt off.

*Too Stupid To Live


Anonymous said...

just FYI, the best "hero takes shirt off" scene in modern cinema history is in the currently running film "Australia." The film is way too long. Could have used less cattle and more Hugh Jackman.

I loved Sean Bean as Sharpe. Can't wait to compare and contrast with the new version.

Jules Frusher said...

I've watched all of the Sharpe series of films and I must agree that this was not the best of them. Even so, it kept me happily entertained for a few hours!

I was surprised (although I don't know why, really) at how much older, dirtier and rugged Sean Bean looked in this one. But I do think he looked more 'authentic' than he did in his younger 'pretty boy' days. It doesn't bother me - I'd still watch him whatever! And yes, always good to have good ol' Patrick Harper with his timely one-liners!

Gabriele Campbell said...

Well, Sean Bean in a wet shirt is worth a few logical blunders. :)

Didn't care about blondie, though.

Annis said...

Much as I love Sean Bean, I just couldn't see past my mental image of Richard Sharpe as a tall, lean dark-haired man with hard good looks.

The gorgeous SB was a good fit as a soldier, and would make a great Saxon or Viking--he'd go well in an adaptation of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories. In fact he is supposed to be starring in a movie due to come out next year called "Last Battle Dreamer". It's billed as "a love story set in 9th century England, against the backdrop of the Viking invasions." I'm looking forward to that one!

That apart, the "Sharpe TV series worked for me as a fun, swashbuckling adenture, as long as I didn't take it seriously.

Carla said...

Anonymous - Hello and welcome, and thanks for the tip :-) Sean Bean still makes a good Sharpe, if a somewhat older edition. It's the plot that falls short.

Lady D - I agree, I thought he looked noticeably older than when he was playing Boromir, which wasn't all that long ago. Maybe it was because they clearly hadn't let him shave for a month? I like the original Sharpe TV series very much. I think one of the problems with this one, as well as the wafer-thin plot, was the absence of the riflemen who were such interesting secondary characters in the TV series.

Gabriele - in the wet shirt or out of it? :-)

Annis - Interesting you should say that about the mental image of Sharpe from the books. I found Sean Bean fitted into my mental image very easily, even though he's fair and Sharpe is dark. I suppose they share the 'hard good looks'! That film you mention sounds almost as if it could be an adaptation of the Uhtred series - with the statutory Hollywood romance duly added in!