First of all, 'St. Ives' the film is only fairly loosely based on the
Robert Louis Stevenson story of the same name, but for once, this is
not a criticism. The original novel was a work-in-progress, unfinished
at the author's death, and in freely adapting it and giving it an
ending, the film-makers have brought to life some endearing characters
who, although different from Stevenson's originals, would, I am sure,
have charmed and amused him.
It is 1813: Capitaine Jacques de Kéroual de Saint-Yves is a Breton aristocrat, orphaned by the Revolution's guillotine, now serving as a hussar in Napoleon's army. We meet him going out for the evening, claiming that since a hussar who is not dead by 30 is "a blackguard", he, at 34, is now "on borrowed time"! Certainly, as he faces a string of challenges to duels, our dashing hero seems in danger, but a surreal prank on his Colonel provides him a way out of the duels and into the bed of a beautiful courtesan/singer. Unfortunately, it also results in losing his commission... Further misadventures result in him being taken prisoner by the British, and sent to a POW camp in a Scottish castle.
While carving toys and boxes, Jacques catches the attention of Flora, the young niece of Miss Susan Gilchrist, a well-travelled woman of the world who lives at Swanston Cottage. They fall in love, and most of the story concerns Flora helping Jacques to escape and to find his emigré grandfather, the old Comte. Of course, there is a problem. Jacques' older brother, Alain, a dissolute alcoholic, is - perhaps understandably - far from pleased when Grandfather disinherits him in front of the whole household, the very instant that Jacques has appeared... Cue treachery! There is also an entertaining subplot of the romance between the awkward, naïf but good-hearted Major Farquhar Chevening and Aunt Susan, who has travelled through most of the Ottoman Empire and been a prisoner of the Turks.
Even allowing for a natural prejudice in favour of any film in which the heroines share my surname, 'St. Ives' is magic! It combines splendidly swashbuckling swordfights, a balloon-flight, comedy and romantic adventure. I would recommend it to anyone who loves 'the kind of film they don't make anymore' - Fairbanks, Colman, Flynn, & co. The acting is splendid. Anna Friel makes Flora a spirited and appealing heroine, and Jean-Marc Barr is delightful as Jacques, a genuinely lovable hero. Miranda Richardson and Richard E. Grant are already great favourites of mine, and have great fun as Susan and Farquhar, whose relationship runs as a comic counterpoint to that of the leads. As the rakish, scheming, but ultimately tragic Alain, Jason Isaacs shows, as he did more recently in 'The Patriot', that he has the classic swashbuckling style, besides the dashing good looks! Please, please will someone cast him as a *hero* in the genre?!!!
My main quibbles with the film concern settings and costumes. In the book, the castle in which Jacques is a prisoner is clearly Edinburgh, but the film, shot in Ireland, Germany and France has 'Highlandised' the setting, making the retention of place names such as Swanston, Inveresk and Queensferry decidedly incongruous. The costumes too are a real hotch-potch, from 1780s through to the period in which it is set. While this would not be implausible with more down-market characters "making do", it seems odd for well-to-do ladies such as the heroines to be wearing 1780s gowns in 1813. Clearly, the costuming decision was æsthetic: these earlier styles are visually far more appealing and elegant than Regency fashions, and they work in the idealised world of the film. As a whole, 'St. Ives' is 90 minutes of pure delight.
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