Masterpiece Classics Review: Sharpe’s Challenge

E: Though the series has run for some time, last night’s episode (which first aired back in 2006) was my first foray into the Sharpe cannon. Our intrepid hero is a retired Colonel in the British Army, now farming in France.  He’s a handsome devil of low birth but high intelligence and morals (and, of course, is played by Sean Bean, which is a plus from every conceivable angle).  It’s a bit funny for an American to cheer for a redcoat, but it works.  This installment puts Sharpe in an exotic locale complete with vixens, damsels in distress, murder and rebellion most foul, and a few burning questions.  Is the Northern English accent kryptonite for American women, or does it only make us swoon when it’s voiced by Sean Bean and Richard Armitage?  Were severed heads really the email of the early 19th century?  And is Padma Lakshmi (better known as a reality tv host) a sex bomb, or just a bomb?

Sharpe is sent back to India by his hero, the Duke of Wellington, in order to quell a rebellious prince – most importantly to Sharpe – rescue his dearest friend.  The friend in question is the Irish trader and spy Patrick Harper (the accents!  Seriously!); against his inclinations, Sharpe returns to oppose Toby Stephens’s rogue Englishman General Dodd, who has schemed with a courtesan (Lakshmi) to set up a puppet raja (Kharan Panthakay as Khande Rao) and revenge himself on the British army which held him back in the ranks due to his low birth and lack of well-funded connections.

Sharpe and Harper (Daragh O’Malley) are vivid characters, as is the vile, grasping bully Bickerstaff (Peter-Hugo Daly) whom Sharpe opposes to his cost.  Most seem clichéd to me, however; the lovely and proud general’s daughter, played by Primeval‘s Lucy Brown, the raja’s loving sister (Shruti Vyas) , and generals both buffoonish and manly (Peter Symonds).  There are mercenaries, devoted soldiers, noble Indians and idiotic Brits.  And, of course, there’s Lakshmi’s cunning mistress, who sadly can not convey the requisite amount of cunning or (puzzlingly enough) sensuality.  Oh, she’s gorgeous alright, but she’s not dirty.  I’ll be nice and say she’s just too laid back and classy to convince us she’s a low down seductress with murderous intentions. And it’s actually quite weird to hear her speak with an accent, after listening to her actual voice for so long on Top Chef.

The action story is a pretty exciting one – infiltrating a fortress, passing as a deserter to a man who almost killed you 14 years before, protecting an army, messing around with explosives, that sort of thing.  There’s interesting discussions about the British Empire and the promotion policies of the British Army.  It honestly astounds me that Britain conquered anyone, let alone maintained such a far-flung Empire, considering the number of idiots who bought their way to a command.  (Yes, this is fiction, but we all know there were plenty of aristocratic blunders in history, too.) Stephens is in fine fettle as the ambitious, villainous Dodd.  The scene where he surprises imprisoned English woman Celia Burroughs in the bath is particularly stressful.  He perpetrates enough gruesome atrocities on the local populace as well as the British soldiers to put us firmly in our hero’s corner.  Enough with the grizzling nail killings and the severed heads, though!  Sharpe is a fine and worthy character, not to mention magnetic as played by Bean, but I don’t think I’ll ever love the series.  We hear what a great and brilliant fighter Sharpe is, and what a storied soldier, but do we see it?  I suppose I prefer my military men like Horatio Hornblower and James T. Kirk; smarter than everyone else.  Sharpe is a good fighter, but he has his bacon saved more than a few times.  He’s clever – the best instance of this occurs while he and Harper are undercover and Dodd wants a proof of loyalty – but more than anything else, he’s lucky.  And to me, that’s a little less fun than what Miles Vorkosigan and Jack Aubrey do, surviving on their wits alone.  Sure, everyone talks a good game, and Sharpe gets his way in the end, but was it all about his own virtue as a hero?  Did anyone else watch?  What do you think?

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4 comments on “Masterpiece Classics Review: Sharpe’s Challenge

  1. sapience says:

    I watched last night, largely because about 3 weeks ago I had been talked into starting the series from the beginning. So… I’ve watched the first 10 or so episodes, and then this one. Last night’s episode was good, but not as good as the earliest episodes in some ways. This episode really counted on you knowing the tropes of the series, and knowing Symonds and Harper and Sharpe in earlier contexts. I think that might have solved some of your problems with the series. Part of the problem with this episode is that Sharpe is a reluctant hero, and so he’s not being nearly so active in producing situations as he normally is. So, while Sharpe is very lucky in this episode, and elsewhere, he’s usually far better at MAKING his own luck.

    Also, Richard Armitage and Sean Bean have been blending into a single person in my head recently. That Northern accent is quite seductive.

    • E says:

      I had exactly that experience – with the accent, and both having that low gravelly voice to begin with, it was like watching Richard Armitage dub Sean Bean, which was quite confusing.

      It sounds like I should netflix the series; Mr. E liked it a lot, so he’d be on board. Maybe once all the finales are over in May and there’s nothing else to watch!

  2. Sonia says:

    Most seem clichéd to me, however

    The characters AND situations seemed that way to me. We made it through an hour and then gave up. I will always love Sean Bean, but Toby Stephens seems to play the same mustache-twirling baddie over and over these days. And the general’s daughter was like the damsel-in-distress in a bodice-ripper. (I mean, SHE LITERALLY HAD HER BODICE RIPPED!)

    I, too, MUCH prefer Horatio Hornblower. And yet, I think that if I’d been watching SHARPE from the beginning, I would have looked upon this installment more fondly (as sapience suggests above).

    • E says:

      The bodice ripping was a bit much, no? I do kind of want to go back and watch the earlier eps now just to get a better feel for the series and the character, even though I wasn’t in love the episode itself.

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