Ewan MacGregor, very young and very dashing, plays Julien Sorel, a carpenter's son with a prodigious memory, which earns him a chance to be educated by the local priest. Napoleon has been defeated and has died in exile and the Bourbon monarchy has been restored, but Julien reveres Napoleon and longs to thrust himself back in time, to join his army and follow him to glory. Since he rarely speaks of his treasonous hero worship, Napoleon (Christopher Fulford) has become his imaginary friend, an interlocutor who urges him constantly 'To Arms!' This phantom Napoleon, however, is a boy's imagining, a mixture of Long John Silver and D'Artagnan in his ripe old age. It is by means of this figure that Julien renders each event in his life in the terms of a military campaign, a way of gazing at the world that obscures the motives of other people and makes of him an unwitting foil for them.
Julien insists at first that he is meant for the priesthood. There, he believes, is where power has concentrated since Napoleon's exile. In the series, Julien sees Napoleon standing in front of crucifixes. He prays, but to a purely secular god, a god who seemingly has nothing better to do than encourage a confused young man to essay each mundane occurrence of his life as though it were Waterloo. His mentor, the priest - the first of many - doesn't think that Julien is sincere in his religious vocation and instead arranges for a position as tutor to the children of the mayor. Insulted by the condescension of Madame de Renal (Alice Krige), he sets about trying to seduce her with all the haplessness of the eighteen-year-old he is. Even so, he succeeds.
How is it that this callow man, only barely a man, seduces a woman of religious conviction, devoted to her children? The answer lies in the questions I posed above. Julien sees every interaction in his life through the lens of his obsession with Napoleon, but each and every person who encounters him finds him opaque. He impresses through small demonstrations that would seem to indicate undisclosed talents - he can recite the entire New Testament by heart, he obligingly shimmies up to the top of a church to deposit a ceremonial feather - that is, he fakes it until he makes it. However, this fatal combination of opacity and talent allows those around him to find in him the figure that they assume is hidden within him. Thus, a priest believes him to be a believer, above the frivolities of society, while an aristocrat re-invents him as the bastard progeny of a noble, a revolutionary assumes him as a co-conspirator, and women imagine him an ardently impetuous lover, prepared to risk death to make love to them.
Julien takes on each role presented to him with fervor, but he cannot oblige everybody without eventually betraying someone. Some roles, such as loyal, discreet secretary to the Marquis de la Mole (T. P. McKenna) and disdainful Romeo to his only daughter (Rachel Weisz), are simply incompatible. The imaginary Napoleon pushes Julien to view each favor, each order, each new position, that flatters his vanity and makes him feel liked, as something he has chosen for himself, directed into being. As a result, Julien throws himself out of his depth again and again, until his rash actions land him in a hole he can't emerge from, even with the efforts of a surprising number of people who love him. At the crucial moment, he asks 'What does this have to do with me?'
In the end, Julien will not save himself because that choice, one of the first that he, and not a mentor or lover, would make regarding his future, would, he claims, make him a hypocrite. Julien believes that he lives by the Napoleonic code, but instead he lives by the pursuit of pleasures and luxuries, the illusory signs of power that he never comes close to actually attaining. His phantom Napoleon is a convincing rhetorician; Julien, acting always on sincere impulse, cannot see that his sincerity is the most fickle part of his character. It is pleasant to be loved by an aristocratic woman - it means sex and an interlude of asserting himself over someone of a higher class - and it is unpleasant to be rejected by her - hence, he does everything to win her back. But, even in this instance, he mopes about, until the worldly Comte de Beauvoisis (Crispin Bonham-Carter) tells him what to do. He is constantly sincere, lying only when instructed to do so by someone else (and thus sincerely doing his best to oblige), and thus he is a preternatural hypocrite.
The performances of the actors are mannered, but so they should be: these characters are profoundly conscious of taking poses and playing parts. Even the least affected, the priest Pirard (Stratford Johns), uses his round, red, pock-marked face as a canvas depicting whatever emotion is best designed to achieve his aim. Sincerity and hypocrisy are not contradictory, but complementary, and this is true whether one wears the black uniform of the priest or the scarlet uniform of the hussar.
The series benefits from an unusually rich symphonic theme by Jean-Claude Petit, evidently influenced by Romantic composers like Berlioz and Schumann, expressive cinematography (decidedly unexpected for a '90s television production) by John Mcglashan, with inky blacks and gashes of red emphasized above all other colors in the palette, and costumes by Odile Dicks-Mireaux that convey not only each character's class, politics, and attitudes towards love, but their emotional state in each scene. The sound design is marred by a distracting and near constant background noise of bird songs and calls, including one I couldn't identify that sounded so exactly like the mews of kittens that I actually paused the series, thinking there were cats outside my window. This one flaw, and the need to know a fair bit about French politics in the nineteenth century, are all that is likely to diminish the viewer's enjoyment of Scarlet and Black.