Reviews: Fiction

St. Ives

Hook, Harry, dir. St. Ives. Jean-Marc Barr, Miranda Richardson, Richard E. Grant, Anna Friel and Michael Gough. Written by Allan Cubitt (from an unfinished novel by Robert Louis Stevenson). BBC and Compagnie Des Phares Et Balises, 1998.

Set in 1813, the video St. Ives (also known by the alternate title, All for Love) tells the story of a French hussar officer Jacques St. Ives (Jean–Marc Barr) imprisoned by the British in Scotland.  St. Ives is based on an unfinished Robert Louis Stevenson novel, originally published posthumously in 1897. The original story is another exploration of Stevenson's recurring theme of the polarity of human nature, which was most clearly explored in his Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but also in the story of rival brothers in The Master of Ballantrae, father and son in Weir of Hermiston or uncle and nephew in Kidnapped.

St. Ives (whose family motto is "Audentes Fortuna Juvat"--“Fortune favors the daring"), a witty, womanizing veteran of Napoleon's wars, kills a brother officer in a duel.  In order to avoid having to fight all the officers of the dead man's regiment, as well as to have time to bed his latest flame, St. Ives insults his commandant to be given a demotion.  Instead, St. Ives is broken to the ranks and, now a private in an infantry regiment, he proceeds to get himself captured by the British.  Sent to a prison camp in Scotland, St. Ives soon becomes involved in the love life of the prison's commander, Major Farquar Chevening (Richard E. Grant), and with Flora Gilchrist (Anna Friel) and her unmarried aunt (Miranda Richardson).  He is also reunited with his émigré grandfather, a ci-devant count, and his wastrel brother, who have been living in Scotland since the deaths of St. Ives's father and mother during the Revolution. Intrigue, masked balls, disguises, duels, and hair's-breath escapes ensue.

Jean-Marc Barr, who has appeared previously in Luc Besson's Big Blue and Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves, is quite good as our eponymous French hero. Anna Friel (a former British soap opera star) as Flora Gilchrist seems a tad flat as the Frenchman's love interest (one would wonder what St. Ives would see in her, though I suppose to a prisoner it's "any port in a storm").  Miranda Richardson does a good job as the eccentric, globetrotting adventuress, Miss Gilchrist.  Richard E. Grant (whose previous Napoleonic role was as "The Scarlet Pimpernel") plays his usual English upper-class prat.

St. Ives is an old-fashioned swashbuckling, romantic comedy of the sort Errol Flynn might have appeared in.  It has some of the qualities of Arthur Conan Doyle's "Brigadier Gerard" stories.  The witty dialogue written by Allan Cubitt highlights the screenplay, though many of the actual situations, especially later in the film, seem familiar.  St. Ives's escape from Scotland is quite preposterous.  The film moves quickly, jumping from France to Scotland and back again.  The film starts well, but its ending is the weakest part, perhaps reflecting the fact that Stevenson never finished the novel.  The film succeeds admirably, however, at attaining its modest ambitions, never taking itself too seriously.  St. Ives is Sense and Sensibility or Emma-lite, but it will not replace The Duelists in the hearts of Napoleonic movie fans.

St. Ives played on the BBC in the U.K. in 1998.  The video is rated R (MPAA) and includes tasteful nudity. 1 hr. 30 min. in length.

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg
December 2001


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