04 May 2010

Sharpe's Peril

Sharpe’s Peril Imperfect but Still Great Fun
By Kristin Battestella

Sharpe's PerilYes I’m still reading and watching Sharpe! At long last, the sixteenth episode in the long running British series based on the books by Bernard Cornwell has come to the States. 2008’s Sharpe’s Peril has just enough charm and exotic Indian adventure for long time fans to delight.

Retired Colonel Richard Sharpe (Sean Bean) and his friend, former Sergeant Major Patrick Harper (Daragh O’Malley) have done their duty in India and are ready to return home. Unfortunately, the local Viscount makes one final request of Sharpe-he must escort the temperamental Marie-Angelique Bonnet (Beatrice Rosen) to Kalimgong to meet her fiancĂ©, Major Phillipe Joubert (Pascal Langdale). Along the road, Sharpe encounters a mixed column of King’s men and East India Company soldiers led by young Ensign Beauclere (Luke Ward-Wilkinson) and engineering Major Tredinnick (David Robb). The two have combined their forces in light of recent bandit raids and are escorting the prisoner Barabbas (Amit Behl, Tum Milo Toh Sahi) and Maharani Padmini (Nandana Sen) to Madras. Calvary Colonel Dragomirov (Velibor Topic) is unable to catch the local bandits, and Sharpe reluctantly agrees to lead the column to safety. However, internal treachery and Indian deceptions make the journey, well, quite perilous.

Sharpe’s Peril introduces us to an unusual wagon train that must band together, and it’s a very unhappy mix: angry King’s men, a major escorting his pregnant wife, the princess’ traveling caravan, a somewhat zealous missionary, and a selfish French bride-to-be. And yet, no one is what they seem. The random players are each bad or likeable and go on a journey of self in addition to the dangerous trek. There’s lots of rapacious incidents and kinky action, too, to keep Sharpe’s Peril juicy. Even Sharpe himself has to take a moment at the crazy turns this motley train takes. Crooked company men swindling on drug trafficking and implicating a local righteous rebel is a little too much of a twentieth century plot, I grant you, but it’s not like opium trade didn’t go on back in the day. In some ways this also adds to the dangers at hand-us upright westerners fearing heady, mind bending drugs in the exotic wilds of lawless India! There’s nothing like internal dissention, religious division, and cultural fears when you need some period piece drama. However, for every bad apple and twisted situation, we have a kindhearted moment of the column uniting against journey and tragedy.

Sean Bean is once again on form as Our Man Richard. Yes, he looks older than in Challenge; but here he is styled better, back to wearing rifle green and bemused by this crazy detour back to England. Bean isn’t as bleached and sickly as he seemed in the first India outing-although I wish his hair was out of his eyes instead of blowing about all the time. When we can see his eyes and facial expressions, we know what’s on Sharpe’s mind, from threatening to carry a woman who won’t obey to almost killing the son of Obadiah Hakeswill. For one who isn’t supposed to have airs and graces, Sharpe does know how to be a diplomat to each of his charges. His protection of the women and his fatherly attachment to his young Ensign is Sharpe at his best. And amid all this, we even have some humor. Who knew Sharpe thought ‘Dick’ was a bad name until he heard ‘Barabbas’ was worse?

Not to be outdone, Daragh O’Malley still has great wit. Though painful, his bout with kidney stones is somehow amusing amid all the brooding and squinting. India must be super sunny! Harper is in many ways the moral conscience of Sharpe. Even though Sharpe has a mind of his own, sometimes it’s too much of a mind, and Harper knows how to keep the balance when necessary. I like now that rank isn’t an issue, Pat can call Sharpe Richard. It’s also ridiculous that these touching, serious character moments that make Sharpe’s Peril are the pieces there were edited out for the international 100-minute version. No religion, long lost family, even Sharpe reflecting on his daughter and the losses and costs of the soldier’s life- indeed the best parts of Peril- were cut from the PBS airing. For shame on the television powers that be for interfering with fine period performances!

At least we have plenty of fine ladies and villains to spice up Sharpe’s Peril. Beatrice Rosen (The Dark Knight, 2012) as Marie-Angelique and Caroline Carver (The Royal Today) as the pregnant Mrs. Tredinnick begin as opposites and warm wonderfully as their experience progresses. Likewise, Indian actress Nandana Sen (Prince) is more than the snooty princess we are led to believe. Though Velibor Topic (Holby Blue, Robin Hood) and Pascal Langdale (Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married) are meant as our double crossing baddies, longtime Sharpe antagonist Michael Cochrane almost steals the show as a sun crazed and somewhat reformed General Sir Henry Simmerson. It’s great fun to see him calling Sharpe, his long time disdain, ‘Though art my redeemer, sir. The sweetest name in all the world, sir.’ Deception and role reverses keep the peril in Peril. Steve Speirs (The Phantom Menace, The Musketeer) as Colour Wormwood is a great creep, and his ill led men give us plenty to be suspicious about, too. When the true colors-both good and bad-come out, it puts everyone in jeopardy. There are actually a lot of people to like and care for here. I would say too many (certainly more than any other Sharpe episode) but for more fine performances from David Robb (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Highlander: The Series) as Major Tredinnick, Raza Jaffrey (MI-5) as his loyal student Lance Naik Singh, and Luke Ward-Wilkinson (Wild at Heart) as the youthful Ensign Beauclere taken under Sharpe’s wing.

Long time Sharpe director Tom Clegg knows how to handle the swashbuckling action and ensemble cast. We pick up where the prior India installment Sharpe’s Challenge leaves off, and the wit, action, and characters that made the classic Sharpe episodes so delightful are all here. Although this is an original script from house writer Russell Lewis, the touches of Bernard Cornwell’s prequel India trilogy are stilted in 1818. There is a little unevenness again due to the post-Waterloo movement in the timeline. Peril is a road movie with fine character explorations, but compared to other Sharpe episodes, nothing much happens. While not bad by any means, when looking at the new to India flash of Sharpe’s Challenge, Peril does seem floundering or sub par. Sometimes the audience, like Sharpe himself, might wonder what we are still doing in India. Together, this uneven India pair isn’t as good a conclusion to the series as Sharpe’s Waterloo temporarily was.

Although there’s more literary material to draw from and plenty of fuel left in the cast and crew’s tank, to laymen viewers it may seem as if this pair of films is grasping at former glory and success. American audiences who finally saw these latest Sharpe episodes on PBS complained that they were just violent, unworthy drivel. That kind of negative attitude perpetuates the step down in quality, creating poor ratings, less and less funding, and little or no American distribution. Besides that, where have these naysayers been for the first fifteen violent and juicy action episodes that Sharpe’s content was so shocking to them? Masterpiece Theatre did treat these newest episodes as if they were merely filler, editing the two part episodes down to ninety-minute installments. This lack of love didn’t do the series any services. Sharpe isn’t meant to be serious brain food, and sure Peril is not the best episode in the series. Having said that, this series is better than any of our absurd reality show obsessions- and there is some quality reading to have along with it. Sadly, with budget cuts and other difficulties at the British networks, it’s growing more and more likely that this series will not continue. I for one would like to see at least one more episode- perhaps based on Sharpe’s Devil or detailing Sharpe’s children. Give Sharpe the ambitious send off it deserves, not a disappointing American whimper.

Nevertheless, the producers have also been faithful to longtime viewers instead of remaking or rebooting and starting afresh with Cornwell’s beginning novels. Little touches in Peril and wit from Bean are part of what makes Sharpe such fun. Yes, the India changes and inconsistencies hamper Peril, but regular audiences will notice that when Sharpe is shot in the arm and an old scar is reopened- its really just a tongue in cheek covering up of Bean’s ‘100% Blade’ tattoo. The camaraderie is still there, old villains are not forgotten, and Peril does a fine job of honoring the past as much as it allows room for the players involved to grow on this treacherous journey.

The storyline may have its faults with India, but the look of Sharpe’s Peril is golden. Elephants, Hindi, Bengali, the ladies costumes both native and European-Peril’s set and dressings look more like a film then a nearly not financed television production. The score is also on form. I never thought I’d say I miss that horrible electric guitar rift from the earlier episodes, but the traditional Sharpe music underlies the proper score wonderfully. The ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ lyrics are also used to full poignancy in one critical scene. Some of the accents might be tough to some, as there’s not just British, but French and Indian dialogue. At least there are subtitles. Although some Americans might be confused by Sharpe’s slang, I think its great fun to see nowt onscreen!

And oh by gosh, by golly Sharpe’s Peril is glorious on blu ray! There aren’t many other features, but the 25 minute making of documentary packs everything you’d ever want to know or even imagine about the behind the scenes happenings. Everything from how the Russian stunt men don’t speak English to a billiards tournament lost by Sean Bean. The insights from all the cast and crew are wonderful and full of fun little things to the Sharpe insider. Tom Clegg reckons this makes 34 hours of Sean Bean, Daragh O’Malley runs the betting on all their games, and yes ladies, they are still smoking-cigarettes that is! It’s a Sharpe fan’s delight, and I regret that I don’t yet have the DVD. Thus far, this is my only Sharpe movie review without screen captures!

Super youthful audiences might not appreciate the complexities here, and there is a touch of language and sexual suggestion, too, that might be a bit much. Sharpe fans, however, as well as lovers of the cast and period piece action, will enjoy the charm and reflection of Sharpe’s Peril. I also implore any naysayers to return to the original novels or the vintage Sharpe DVDs before writing off this series as dead and buried. Can we have just one more episode, pretty please?

1 comment:

Kristin Battestella said...

Hey folks. I just got Sharpe's Peril for Christmas! It's a tough trade to have the magic of blu-ray and no way to screen capture it, but I'll take it!