Written by Patrick Harbinson and Bernard Cornwell
Directed by Tom Clegg
1814. Peace – Napoleon has been exiled to the Island of Elba. The King of France has been returned to his throne. And Sharpe has returned to England.
This was not adapted from one of Cornwell’s books, and unfortunately it shows. Once the war was over, they should have wrapped up the story of Sharpe, but here the attempt to draw out the series a bit further falls flat.
All along we’ve seen that Sharpe is cunning on the battlefield. We know he has risen through the ranks to attain a position and rank usually reserved for those of noble birth – something which it has been made clear he isn’t. Sharpe’s Justice is a valiant attempt to show the background and fill in some of the holes that have been missing about his life. Unfortunately, it ends up filled with predictable “plot twists”. If this is the best they can come up with, they should have left his background mysterious and let fans fill it in on their own.
When Major Richard Sharpe (Sean Bean) receives orders to go command the Scarsdale Yeomanry in Yorkshire, he’s distressed as the prospect of having to leave London and his quest to find his wife, Jane, (Abigail Cruttenden) and the man who has moved in with her and taken all his money, Lord Rossendale (Alexis Desinof). Sharpe insists his best friend, Harper (Daragh O’Malley) is going home to Ireland, but Harper manages to tag along despite Richard’s protestations.
While out strolling, Jane and Lord Rossendale run into Lady Anne, who aided Sharpe back in Sharpe’s Regiment. She cuttingly asks Jane about her husband. At a game of hearts, she also manages to unnerve Rossendale about Sharpe coming back.
Up in Yorkshire, Sharpe finds himself among wealthy mill owners who are looking to use him to squelch the uprising in the mills which will occur once the workers find their wages cut back to pre-war levels. This is where Sharpe was raised as an orphan, so some of the faces he will encounter are familiar to him. That background works to Sharpe’s benefit. Unlike the upper-class soldiers who typically are given command, Sharpe is from the streets and used to fighting like someone of the streets.
Here the story turns almost into a soap opera, as Sharpe is visiting the orphanage he was raised in and learns of a long-lost brother. Is it really any surprise that the brother turns out to be the man trying to organize the mill workers, and the man Sharpe has been dispatched to capture, Truman (Philip Glenister)? No, it was a terrible use of this story really. The whole plot feels contrived.
The title Sharpe’s Justice led me to believe that Jane and Rossendale would get their comeuppance. Cruttenden and Desinof are fine when they are together. They are adequate actors and are fine opposite each other. Whenever either of them has a scene opposite a better actor, such as when Sharpe confronts Jane, their mediocrity in the talent department comes through. In Cruttenden’s case, I’m not sure when she took the role that she knew the twist it was going to take. She was believable as the abused niece of Sir Henry Simmerson back in Sharpe’s Regiment. She was still good when she became Sharpe’s wife and followed him as he battled the French. The decline of her ability seemed to be synchronous with her character’s materialistic and social-climbing desires came to fruition. At the time, I thought it didn’t seem to fit the story. I think a large part of that has to do with Cruttenden not having a good feel for that change in her character.
The social message is shoved down the throat too, as much as I agree with it. The “evil” mill owners aren’t willing to change their lifestyles now that the war has ended, so they solve the problem of less money coming in from the government contracts by cutting workers’ pay. It’s a story that’s been told before and much better. I felt as if it really had no place being in the Sharpe universe. His place is on the battlefield, not playing policeman for the elite.
The scenes between Sharpe and his two comrades are good. In addition to Harper, there’s Hagman (John Tams) who has mostly been seen throughout the series as the balladeer of the riflemen Sharpe leads. Here Sharpe encounters him on the side of the workers as he’s looking for something to do now that he’s out of the Army. It’s nice to see him given a meatier role and he does a great job with it. O’Malley is terrific as Harper. The last few tele-films he’s been in the background a bit more. Here, he is back as Sharpe’s loyal sidekick and that alone brings the film up a star.
The story is lacking, but the performances are good from O’Malley, Tams, and Bean. It’s not horrible, but this is no place to get a good feel for what was so great about this series of films. There’s one more to go in the series, and I’m happy it didn’t end on this disappointing note!