Care for an Impromptu?


My George Sand obsession is pretty well known among my friends and Facebook acquaintances, and I lay all the blame on Impromptu (1991) for starting it. So, here’s my top five reasons to watch this fabulous frock flick.

1. The Cast of Impromptu 

Impromptu (1991)

That’s a whole lotta pretty right there…

Casting Judy Davis as George Sands was pretty genius, IMHO. She’s got the right amount of swagger and bravado, and she’s in no way too pretty. Which is not to say she isn’t attractive, more that she’s handsome. Hugh Grant does a good job of playing Frederic Chopin, and even though I swing wildly on the topic of whether he’s just pretty or an actually decent actor, I really enjoy watching him in this film. Emphasis on WATCHING. Jesus, the eye candy is strong, because not only do we have pretty Hugh Grant, Julian Sands is GORGEOUS as Franz Liszt. Bernadette Peters plays Liszt’s high-strung and slightly unhinged lover Marie D’Agoult. Mandy Patinkin is all that and a bag of chips as the author Alfred De Musset, one of George’s former lovers. Ralph Brown plays Eugene Delacroix like he just stepped out of a portrait, and Emma Thompson as the Duchess d’Antan is absolutely brilliant. Of course, when is Emma Thompson ever NOT brilliant? I’ll take my answer off the air.

Also, everyone from the casting director to the costumer did a pretty damn good job of finding actors who physically resembled the people they were portraying in the film. ESPECIALLY Julian Sands as Franz Liszt.

impromptu 1991

If Teen Beat existed in the 1830s, there would have definitely been Liszt centerfolds.

Even Hugh Grant is a passable physical likeness for a younger, somewhat healthier Chopin:

impromptu 1991

Most photos of Chopin are from the end of his life, when he admittedly wasn’t looking so good, but this painting by his fiancée Maria Wodzińska shows him at around the same time that the movie is set.

And my personal favorite, Ralph Brown as Eugene Delacroix:

impromptu 1991

For some reason, he’s my favorite character of the entire cast, though I can’t quite say why… Maybe I just have a thing for crazy artists.

2. The Menswear

1991 Impromptu

Who is prettier: Emma Thompson in boy clothes or Hugh Grant?

Broadly speaking, Impromptu is a FANTASTIC costume flick, especially for an era that gets very little love both on and off the screen (the 1830s). There’s a few issues with hair styles that give it away as a 1990s film, but otherwise, the clothing, hair, and makeup are all quality. Jenny Beavan (costume designer for historical films such as Jefferson in Paris, Sense and Sensibility, Ever After, and A Room With A View to name only a few of her MANY film credits) clearly did her homework. Since the main character is a woman who dresses as a man for most of the film, the focus is very much on menswear — but as this period is a fabulous time for menswear (before it got super boring in the mid-19th century), I think there’s still plenty to get excited about.

1991 Impromptu

Ok, not gonna lie, I’d totally hit that.

1991 Impromptu

I am suddenly filled with a burning need for a linen frock coat…

1991 Impromptu

This entire movie had me rethinking my policy on Hugh Grant.

1991 Impromptu

I will never be this cool. Ever.

3. The Women’s Wear

But lest you think that Impromptu is less frock than flick, let me assure you that there are PLENTY of fabulous gowns to be seen. Two members of the main cast (Emma Thompson and Bernadette Peters) are dressed primarily in upper-class female clothing. Also, George Sand wears a few dresses during key points in the movie, particularly towards the end.

Emma Thompson in Impromptu (1991)

Big sleeves and lotsa lace. Thank you, 1830s.

1991 Impromptu

Replace the bird blood with coffee, and it’s the story of my life.

1991 Impromptu

This dress is one of my favorites in the film. Also, Chopin has mad cravat game.

IMPROMPTU, Emma Thompson, 1991

Another gorgeous blue & white chintz print dress.

1991 Impromptu

Everything Emma Thompson wears in this film is fabulous.

4. Impromptu Is Light and Fluffy!

This film could have been a real tear-jerker, considering it deals with the doomed love affair between George Sand and Chopin. I’m a big fan of historical costume movies that don’t make me want to fling myself out of the nearest window after watching, so I’m absolutely fine with the focus being on the eccentric group of artists that formed part of George Sand’s circle and the shenanigans they get up to when trapped in the country under one roof. Some people may feel that the characters are more cartoony than particularly nuanced, but frankly, it’s refreshing to have an uncomplicated film that focuses on complicated people — especially if the costuming is really, really good.

1991 Impromptu

The Duke and Duchess d’Antan learn what a pain in the ass it can be living with artists.

Impromptu 1991

I’d dump water on that horrible wig, too.

5. The Liszt-Chopin Bromance

1991 Impromptu


In real life, Liszt & Chopin were super tight until George’s falling out with Liszt’s baby mama, Marie D’Agoult. The movie follows this basic outline, but doesn’t really address the separation of the two composers other than Liszt goes off on a billion-city tour of Europe and Chopin gets increasingly infatuated with George. Still, the first half of the film deals with their close friendship. Also, unless I’m mistaken, nearly all the shots of Julian Sands and Hugh Grant playing the piano are of both actors actually playing. Sure, the music might have been dubbed in in post, but apparently both actors were given a good amount of training on the piano before filming began, so the scenes where they are playing look good enough to pass my muster (speaking as someone who spent the first third of her life tethered to a piano).

And now, a word about the hair in Impromptu

Because I know if I didn’t say something, I’d get a million comments asking me why I failed to address the hair in this movie. Overall, the hairdressing in this film is great. The women’s hairstyles are good, if not a little understated for the era (compare with The Young Victoria, 2009, for how wacky women’s hair was in the 1830s), but the men’s hairstyles … See, I’m having trouble deciding if it is more 1990s-inspired than 1830s, but at least as far as the men who get the most amount of screen time are concerned, the hair looks believably 1830s. It’s just when George’s spurned lover, Mallefille, shows up that it all goes to hell:

impromptu 1991

[Insert pretty Chopin prelude being ripped off a record player]

His hair is so appallingly styled, I have no EFFING idea what the hairdresser was high on. First, the guy has a super low hairline, so why on earth it was decided to give him a hairstyle that basically swallows his head down to his eyebrows, is anyone’s guess. Also, the fact that his side burns basically disappear entirely into a cloud of feathered hair does no favors for what’s left of his face. He’s supposed to be dashingly handsome (at least according to how the other characters comment on him) but he looks like a neanderthal compared to Julian Sands and Hugh Grant. But maybe that’s the point? That our girl George has a definite type that Chopin doesn’t really fit into? Maybe?

Eric Estrada

Eric Estrada called from 1981 and he wants his hair back.

What are your thoughts on Impromptu? Share with us in the comments!


About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

9 Responses

  1. Readerly

    LOVE THIS MOVIE SO MUCH! Love it for the gender play and the irreverent portrait of those Great Musicians. The scene where Liszt and Chopin play 4-hand piano and jump up and switch places right before the final cadence is SO ENDEARING. And Judy Dench stretched out on the floor under the piano while Chopin is playing – perfect. Also Bernadette Peters’ incredible cattiness.

  2. Janette

    I have never heard of this movie despite it having Emma in it… Now the challenge is to find it. It sounds just like “my kind of movie”.

  3. Kathy Gustafson

    My daughter and I quote this to each other. “She has a crush on Chopin.” “Stupid, stupid rain.” I love the flood of stupid play. What incredible brats.

  4. Kristina

    I’ve seen this film twice and really appreciated the lightheartedness and comedy, which make it such a refreshing change from the average costume drama. The acting is technically quite good, but I am a little surprised to see so much praise for Thompson in particular, as I thought her performance was one of the weaker ones in the film. I usually enjoy her work, but this role ranks right up there with her portrayal of Professor Trelawney as one of her most grating, hammy performances.

    The costumes are, as has been discussed, amazing. I wish that the average Hollywood production would take even half as much care as this film does in recreating historically accurate hairstyles and undergarments. You can tell that the 1830s silhouettes are correct (excellent stays/corsets on the women!), and even though a few of the hairstyles are egregiously inaccurate, many of them are actually quite good. I think contemporary influences on movie hairstyles are usually much more obvious than they are here.

  5. CatnipTARDIS

    You’re asking me if Emma Thompson in a waistcoat is …mmmm …uhhh …what? Could you repeat the question? I got distracted by Emma Thompson in a waistcoat.

  6. LLC

    I love Emma in the Regency double vest (waistcoat) style…. very much of its era.

  7. phlegmfatale

    FYI – There are two George Sand-inspired perfumes from niche houses.

    NFI how one might obtain either, though I ordered a decant of the Gantier, and I need to try it again. I remember liking it, mildly, but it didn’t strike me as the roiling mystery for which I craved. Perhaps I gave it short shrift. Isn’t it interesting how we imagine the constrictions of boning (heh) and the hand of fine fabrics when we watch films, but we don’t think so much of the fragrances people of the period would have worn? To that end, it’s interesting to explore the really old perfumeries that still produce formulations of decades or ceturies ago.

    Impromptu is one of my all time favorites. I find Judy Davis bewitching. I’d be her bitch any day of the week.

  8. Laura Gharazeddine

    One of my all time favourite movies of all time. I’ve seen it at least once a year since it first came out- even more now that I own a copy. I fell in love with Delacroix in High School, and have been fascinated with that group of friends ever since. (Remember “Notorious Woman”, with Rosemary Harris as George and George Chakiris as Chopin? 1974, Masterpiece Theatre. I so wanted to dress like her!) Anyway, Impromptu is everything I could want, except I always want more! (I wish someone would make a movie or series about Delacroix!) So happy to find others who love this film as much as I do!