Return of the Hero review – bustles, bonnets and saucy intrigue

Jean Dujardin and Mélanie Laurent star in a ridiculous but enjoyable romp set during the Napoleonic era

British fans of Jean Dujardin and Mélanie Laurent may well feel they haven’t seen enough of their favourite French stars, since these actors’ international glory days in The Artist and Inglourious Basterds respectively. So here is a ridiculous yet enjoyable romp featuring them both – a ripe period-costume farce from the Napoleonic era, with lots of saucy intrigue and a bit of early-19th-century BDSM. The budget is high. So is the camp. There are loads of bustles and bonnets, and it concludes with a battle scene worthy of Woody Allen’s Love and Death.

Dujardin plays the outrageously moustachioed Captain Charles-Grégoire Neuville, a Flashman-type rogue. He proposes marriage to Pauline (Noémie Merlant), a simpering young woman of noble birth, and is then called away to the wars. Poor Pauline pines away as the Captain doesn’t write, so her tough-minded sister Elisabeth (Laurent) forges ardent letters from the Captain, full of romance and heroism, to save Pauline from wasting away in melancholy.

And then, just when everyone had resigned themselves to the Captain’s permanent absence, this outrageous buffoon shows up: no hero, but a drunken deserter. Quick-thinking Elisabeth realises that she has to protect the Captain’s preposterous reputation if her own deceit is not to be revealed, and the disreputable Captain himself sees how this whole situation can be turned to his advantage.

Surely no actor, French or not, does a caddish smile quite like Dujardin: the broad, open beam with eyebrows angled up in a shallow circumflex to show a hint of something desperate and pleading. For her part, Laurent is elegant and detached, a lively Beatrice to his Benedick. There is an amusing frisson between the two of them.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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