Sharpe's Enemy, the fourth entry in the Sharpe TV series is one of the more grim outings for the heroic rifleman. And given that previous entries have seen men being flogged by superior officers and blown to bits by artillery, peasant natives being abused by both sides and women getting raped by rampaging soldiers, that's saying something. The early half of the story may be marked by Sharpe's comical encounters with a troop of rocket launchers but when the story gathers apace, things get far darker.
The principle enemy this time you see is neither the French nor the incompetent senior officers, but a battalion of renegades formed by deserters from the English, French, Spanish and Portugese armies who are rampaging across the countryside. Led by a former French cook, these thieves and murderers seize control of a village, butcher the male inhabitants and hold the women hostage, including a pair who happen to be the wives of two very influential men; one a British Colonel, the other a French officer. Sharpe and his men are sent to rescue them where they discover that one of these women is Sharpe's old flame Lady Farthingdale (Elizabeth Hurley) and what's worse, the second in command of the deserters is Obadiah Hakeswill (Pete Postlethwaite), the insane Sergeant who first cropped up in Sharpe's Company where he was responsible for Harper being flogged and Teresa, Sharpe's wife nearly being raped. Twice. So not only does our hero have justice on his mind, he also has revenge.
As can be expected of the Sharpe movies, Enemy is packed to the rafters once again with buxom women, dastardly villains and brutal combat, but this time there's a far seedier undercurrent to the proceedings. As they are fighting their own men, there's a tremendous sense of despair and futility to the war and in the later half, Sharpe engages in some decidedly un-noble behaviour. This is dispelled somewhat by the triumphant clash with a French reconnaissance battalion towards the end, but the uncomfortable climax is marked more prominently by the look of hopelessness etched on Sharpe's face.
It goes without saying of course that Sean Bean is the star of the show. He epitomises the role so effortlessly that it's not surprising he adopted the phrase 'still sharp' as a trademark in later performances and while he may be a brave man, he is nonetheless a flawed one and Bean breathes not only life into Bernard Cornwell's creation but incredible depth as well. The chief complaint thrown at this film is Elizabeth Hurley's performance as Lady Farthingdale, but she handles it reliably well and certainly does a good job, even if playing a big breasted English temptress probably wasn't much of a stretch. Hakeswill sadly doesn't get as much screen time as he did in Sharpe's Company but Postlethwaite uses every second to its full potential. The twitching madman with the thousand yard stare makes a perfect foe and he comes close to stealing the show. However, that honour goes to Philip Whitchurch as Captain 'Sweet' William Frederickson, Sharpe's latest ally. Having been in more battles than the rest of the army combined, Frederickson has so many scars he's more or less falling to pieces and is an engaging, charming presence who you can't help but like.
With its darker approach to the Napoleonic wars than had been seen before, Sharpe's Enemy is one of the best entries the series had. The battle with the French at the ending is a bit of a let down after the bruising close quarters ruck they have with the deserters but its finale is fittingly triumphant, especially as it sets up a delightfully evil French man for Sharpe to come to blows with in later movies. They take a few risks with this chapter but nonetheless, the pay off is well worth it and by the time the credits roll, you'll have experienced one of the most rewarding Sharpe films there is.
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