Impromptu is a grand and goofy farce that attempts to rewrite history by portraying some of the 19th century’s most celebrated artistic talents as shallow, neurotic grifters. And It largely succeeds thanks to a strong performance by Judy Davis as writer George Sand, the unofficial leader of a clique of artists in constant search of some wealthy patron to fleece. The first half of the film is quite a hoot, as all the principles are invited to the country manor of the Duchess D'Antan (Emma Thompson) for an extended holiday. The flighty Duchess is woman with a lot more money than sense, and Thompson plays the giggly fool to a perfect hilt.
Accompanying Sand on this parasitic vacation are Eugène Delacroix (a bemused Ralph Brown) and Franz Liszt (Julian Sands, before he became a permanent bad guy). Things generally go to hell when Sand’s jilted lover Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin) shows up, having consumed most of the wine cellar and in a tempestuous mood. Patinkin is a joy to watch in this outsized mad scene, whirling like a witty version of the Tasmanian Devil and stopping just short of taking a bite out of the scenery.
However, Sand is looking for more than free room and board out of this sojourn, for she is harboring a burning hot love for a friend of Liszt’s; a dreamy piano player from Poland named Frédéric Chopin (Hugh Grant) who’s expected to arrive at any moment. The second half of the film deals mainly with Sand’s pursuit of the shy, paranoid composer, a pursuit that leads the pair back to the stylish streets of Paris. The film’s pacing and joke count suffer significantly in the later reels as the film’s breezy camp is replaced by a desperate air. Grant’s Polish accent weaves and wanders like a hungry coyote, at times sounding more Wisconsin than Warsaw, yet it’s hard to imagine any actor crafting a wimpy hypochondriac with more aplomb.
Impromptu belongs to that special sub-genre of Irreverent Costume Dramas, aspiring to the greatness of Amadeus or Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers, to name a few. It doesn’t quite reach those lofty levels, but the film offers a fine selection of winning moments and a young cast at the peak of their charms. Soon, they would all hit the big time but - just like the historical figures they portray - for some it would be all downhill from here.