It saddens me to see such a low IMDb rating for this film. It's such a sweet earnest film, devoid of Hollywood cynicism and commercialism but not in love with its own artiness (artistry might be a better word than artiness). It only cost £350,000 to make and yet it doesn't look cheap. Like another Thomas Hardy adaptation, The Woodlanders, which seems to be its spiritual twin, the director Stuart St Paul (who oddly enough comes from a stunts background as opposed to cinematography) uses the natural landscape to help tell the story. Cliffs are ageless and so without needing any expensive props or sets, we believe we're there, in 1802 Wessex (specifically Dorset).
You may be thinking "I've never heard of this Scarlet Tunic novel". That's because it's based on a short story, which has the less cinematic title 'The Melancholy Hussar in The German Legion'. A good description of the central character but not going to pull your modern audience in. Best to go for the obvious appeal; the tunic in question is the lovely uniform that the King's cavalry wear. This legion is comprised of German soldiers, who would probably feel a lot better fighting for England if they didn't have the boss from hell: Captain Fairfax (Simon Callow). It's quite good that there aren't really any sets as Callow would certainly have chewed them all up. He portrays Fairfax as a blustering fool; not in a way that makes any comment on military rule but as a sort of pantomime character, who has one odd scene in which he tells the dashing hero Sergeant Matthaus Singer (Jean-Marc Barr) that soldiers shouldn't read poetry because of its revolutionary spirit, and then he proceeds to puts his arms around Matthaus and his hands on his chest. Nope, no hint at all that he's gay apart from the fact that he hams and camps his way through the role.
Luckily he isn't the central character though. That's heroine Frances (Emma Fielding) who is less romantically called Phyllis in the story. Her father (Jack Shepard) cares only for her happiness so allows Frances to make up her mind about her new suitor, Sir Humphrey Gould (John Sessions). He's a bit dull but you take what you can get in this market so Frances agrees. But whilst Gould is away on business she falls in love with a lovely dashing German soldier, Matthaus. Will things end happily? Well, if you watch it, you can decide for yourself how far it adheres to the Hardy pessemism.
What the film does do nicely is the Hardy cruel twists of fate. Yes, Hardy could be a bit melodramatic with them at times but often, and particularly here, they are incisive insights into human nature. Gould is not villainous but is careless in his actions- actions which will have a profound effect on Frances and the story. That's why it's frustrating that the Captain is such a comic villain; Hardy was rare in that there are no villains in his novels. The 'villains' are simply careless people who pursue their desires, whatever the cost to anyone else; something which we've all contemplated. That's why his novels and stories are so different from anything else in Victorian Literature.
Apart from Callow's hammery, everybody else turns in nice understated performances. Shepard is quietly paternal as Frances' father and Fielding balances the reality for nineteenth century women- that they were at the mercy of men- with a spirited charm. She does not whinge about her lot nor shy away from breaking the rules. And who wouldn't break the rules for Barr, who is so dashing as the romantic hero and looks wonderful in the uniform? He's every costume drama addict's fantasy, though the chivalry presented here is shown as something belonging to those specific times. Forget Darcy, Singer is the real gentleman; not that that will do him any favours.
The biggest star of the film is the cinematography. Were this film not so obscure, it surely would have bagged the Oscar for cinematography. Malcolm McLean takes a simple idea- shoot the whole thing in neutral muted colours so that the red of the uniform screams out- and executes it in a way where it enhances the story. Other adaptations involving the lure of soldiers have never convinced me (okay, maybe the sword scene in Far From The Madding Crowd) but here it's clear to see how women were dazzled by the unform- because it's literally dazzling.
Although the film initially seems like it's going to be a drag, once the story gets going, you can't fail to be swept along by its simple charm.
EDIT: A quick note on the DVD. Surprisingly this film is quite readily available and can be picked up second hand for a couple of quid. Even more surprising is the quote on the cover: "Best British film since The Full Monty".