Portugal 1813 – Wellington rests his army prior to resuming his offensive against Napoleon. But in the no-man’s land between two armies, the mountains of northern Portugal, other force are still active…
The title of this fourth installment in the British adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s novels refers to Obadiah Hakeswill, the evil villain, coward, and now deserter. Pete Postlethwaite returns as Obadiah, this time leading a band of deserters in a raid on a town as they pretend to be redcoats escorting a French prisoner.
In a recurring theme in this series, Sir Augustus Farthingdale (portrayed Jeremy Child) objects to Sharpe’s conduct and wants to report him. Farthingdale maintains the objection shown time and time again so far in this series in that he thinks it’s a bad idea to raise an officer from the ranks, rather than keeping it to those who are nobility and can afford to purchase it.
Obadiah demands that Sharpe be the one to deliver the ransom for Farthingdale’s wife (portrayed by Elizabeth Hurley), whom he’s holding hostage. Also, a prisoner is a French Colonel’s wife as well. Sharpe and Harper encounter the French Colonel, Dubreton (portrayed by Francois Guatary), and try to work together to free the women. Obadiah then ups the ransom and sends the two on their way, but not before humiliating the women in front of their would-be rescuers.
The story here illustrates what a problem desertion was for all sides in the war at the time. That there are both French and British deserters occupying the town is surprising in some ways. Although they fought on opposite sides, apparently they are united in their disdain for those that command them and ban together in desertion.
The acting here is terrific, as Sharpe becomes much more multi-dimensional. He must deal not only with the usual contempt from his superiors while trying to accomplish an impossible mission, but also must incorporate a new band of “Chosen Men” (as the riflemen are known as) into his own company. Sean Bean seems to give Sharpe a more relaxed and comfortable feeling here. He can joke and play ball with his men and command them in battle well enough that they freely give him their loyalty. Sharpe is shown as clever enough to figure out how to use what’s around him to his advantage, and Bean pulls it off without making Sharpe seem super-human.
Perhaps the most startling is how comfortable Sharpe seems in his personal affairs. He now freely calls Teresa (Assumpta Serna) his wife, although there was never any wedding shown. I have to believe it’s a common-law relationship, which doesn’t make it any less startling when he is human and succumbs to the advances of the woman he has been sent to rescue; a woman about which he knows a startling secret. The temptation here would be to have Sharpe beating himself up with regret and guilt over this “indiscretion”, but Bean seems to put it behind Sharpe the minute he leaves the woman’s arms.
Daragh O’Malley is back again as Harper, and he is quite comfortable in the role now as well. Perhaps he’s a bit too comfortable as it seems this was filmed a while after Sharpe’s Company and O’Malley gained a bit of weight – not something you’d normally see of soldiers in battle! But he brings an affability to his role as Sharpe’s second-in-command that can’t be beat. There seems to be a genuine friendship between O’Malley and Bean.
An interesting almost side-story here is the pet project of using rockets against a foe. It’s interesting on two fronts. One is that the officer in charge of this rocket project is portrayed by Nicholas Rowe of Young Sherlock Holmes, who I hadn’t seen anywhere else until viewing this. He’s quite good in this role as well, trying to be dignified and serious about his assignment when most of the company around him seems to regard him as a joke. The other way this is interesting is to see how it is used to flush out an enemy. Tactically, it’s quite well-done and, if accurate, interesting to see.
Finally, there’s the intense hatred between Sharpe and Hakeswill. Postlethwaite is as terrific in this installment as he was in Sharpe’s Company, but here the tension between the two men has ratcheted up a notch. Hakeswill is no longer bound by trying to keep himself appearing clean and innocent to his superiors, so he can let all of his evil and viciousness surfaces for all to see. Most actors will tell you that playing the villain is more fun than the hero, and Postlethwaite seems to relish the role here but has enough restraint to keep from taking Hakeswill over the top and into unbelievability. His intense hatred for Sharpe and desire to hurt him at all costs is evident but in a cool and calculated way. What an amazing villain and performance!
I think this is the best entry in the series I’ve seen so far, Elizabeth Hurley’s lackluster performance aside. Thankfully, she’s in a pretty much secondary role where she can’t do any damage to the story at hand. The writing is top-notch (and apparently very faithful to the novel) and the story moves along quite well with no lagging. The acting is terrific. For anyone who is interested in these types of period pieces, I highly recommend it.
Previous story in the series (link): Sharpe’s Company
Next story in the series (link): Sharpe’s Honour