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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 03, 1991


James Lapine
Judy David;
Hugh Grant;
Mandy Patinkin;
Bernadette Peters;
Julian Sands;
Emma Thompson
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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The real-life affair between George Sand and Frederic Chopin didn't end happily. But it turned out well for scriptwriter Sarah Kernochan. Her "Impromptu" transforms their troubled liaison into a disarmingly enjoyable divertissement.

The movie also amounts to a multiple accent fender-bender. Virtually every performer plays a character from another country. Australian actress Judy Davis is French writer Sand. Englishman Hugh Grant is Polish composer Chopin; his compatriot Julian Sands romps around as Franz Liszt, a Hungarian. Americans Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters are French: poet Alfred de Musset and Liszt's mistress, respectively. To round things off, Emma Thompson, an Englishwoman, is the addleheaded French hostess who brings all the celebrities together.

But the drama is too lighthearted to worry with such trifles. Accents notwithstanding, the players imbue "Impromptu" with theatrical brightness. Director James Lapine pushes the story to its entertaining fullest, exuding a period-costumed sense of fun. It's as if the makers of "Masterpiece Theatre" were redoing "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Davis is the brightest of them all. As Sand, she smokes a cheroot, dresses in mannish clothing and swaggers around with pre-women's lib poise. Yet beneath this confident exterior is a tender writer's vulnerability. She has fallen in love with Grant's Chopin for his music. When she hears he's a guest at Thompson's chateau, she promptly invites herself. With two children in tow, she pursues the melancholy musician brazenly. Meanwhile, jilted lovers Georges Corraface and Patinkin are close at her heels.

Davis is also hampered by the scheming Peters, who has her own romantic designs on Grant. In a contrived sequence of events, she pens her own name to Davis's love letter to Grant. She thwarts the affair further, informing Grant falsely that Davis is merely after him on a boastful bet. We must sit through one of those incredibly frustrating dramas in which two potential lovers are kept apart by a jealous third. The inevitable reunion takes forever.

But while we're waiting, the movie keeps up a frilly momentum. In witty pursuit of Davis, Patinkin makes an effective comic catalyst. Thompson is perfectly ditz-brained as the duchess who believes that inviting the artistic famous will endear them to her. Peters makes good use of her villainous role.

Grant is the weakest link in the ensemble. His overly frail presence and invalid's cough may make you want to send the guy to actor's boot camp. He doesn't seem to be a Chopin at all, which undercuts the movie's purposes. But the intensity of Davis's romantic obsession is so persuasive that Grant gains importance in absentia. It's a credit to Davis's talented momentum that she can sweep others along so.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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