Until watching this historical mystery/drama, Judge Joel Pearce had no idea Napolean Bonaparte had an older brother named Kip who wasted his time in Internet chat rooms and harbored dreams of becoming a cage fighter.
History is a lie that goes uncontested.
An old-fashioned mystery on its surface, Monsieur N is not really the thriller that it promises to be, nor is it particularly mysterious. It is a nicely mounted production, though, with a rich political complexity and ambiguity that many viewers will find rewarding.
Facts of the Case
Using historical information and a large dose of playful speculation, Monsieur N is an exploration of what may have happened on Saint Helena after the exile of Napoleon Bonaparte (Philippe Torreton, Fresh Bait). The story is told through the eyes of Lieutenant Heathcote (Jay Rodan, The Triumph of Love), a young officer chosen to be liaison to the General's home. Years after Napoleon's death, Heathcote is left with nagging questions about the events surrounding the death. These questions involve Hudson Lowe (Richard E. Grant, Gosford Park), the British officer in charge of the island, the beautiful Betsy Balcombe (Siobhan Hewlett), who loves Napoleon, and a handful of loyal subjects who joined Napoleon in exile.
Did Napoleon die on Saint Helena? If not, who was buried in his place, and exactly what happened to the once mighty conqueror? Through a series of flashbacks and story segments, plausible answers to these questions surrounding the Napoleon's death begin to materialize.
Never satisfied to take the cheap way out, Monsieur N deserves a lot to respect. It gives equal screen time to the British and French characters, and treats the characters on both sides as complex human beings. There are few villains on the island, and even fewer heroes. It is not a prison break thriller, nor does it vilify the respected General Bonaparte. To this point, this is one of the first films I have seen that strives to be accurate in terms of language. Whether English or French was spoken on St. Helena depended upon who was present and who held the most power in the conversation, and Monsieur N recreates this convention to great effect. Most of the cast is able to speak both languages well, though it is also always clear which characters are stronger in which language. Although it's a minor point, it lends a credibility and accuracy to the film that we don't see often enough in historical cinema.
It is also a very attractive film. The scenery of the island is arrestingly beautiful, and the recreation of 19th-century Paris is authentic and full of details. The cinematography is also exceptional, creating a unique look and feel that appears much more expensive than it was. This also lends to the believability of the tale, which is the strongest aspect of the production.
Hotly debated by historians and scientists, the events surrounding Napoleon's death are hazy and incomplete. As such, they make a great topic for a film. With such realistic supporting characters, any of the possibilities presented here are plausible. He may have been poisoned over a long period of time by either the English or the French, and some of the gaps in the burial records are problematic enough that it's possible Napoleon did die on Saint Helena at all. I will not say here which answer the film suggests as the truth.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If only Monsieur N lived up to all of its promise. It's hard to put a finger on exactly why it doesn't work as well as it should, but I think it's mostly because it isn't as much fun as it should be. Subverting history and general historical understanding should be done playfully, but director Antoine de Caunes makes the whole affair much too serious. Also, it is too timid in its approach. To suggest a different understanding for this historical event, de Caunes should have gone for the throat and told his new, revisionist tale. Instead, the end of this film is cloaked in too much speculation and too many possibilities.
The performances are also a mixed bag. I was most impressed by Philippe Torreton, whose portrayal of Napoleon is complex and fascinating. This portrayal is the most interesting thing about the film because it explores the idea that we all perform while carrying out our public duties. I was also pleased by Jay Rodan's work as the narrator, as well as many of the supporting actors. Unfortunately, the experience of the film is marred by a scenery-chewing, dreadfully one-dimensional performance by Richard E. Grant as Lowe. Some of the minor players also drag things down as well, which gives parts of Monsieur N a TV-movie feel.
While Empire Pictures has never been noted for its strong transfers, this film really deserves a better treatment. The colors are generally drab, with a murky not-quite-black level that muddies the indoor scenes. The image was incorrectly mastered from a PAL source, evidenced by some serious jerking during horizontal movement. It's not the worst transfer I have seen, but this cinematography deserves so much better.
The sound is also disappointing, only including a stereo downmix from the original 5.1 track. There is some separation in the stereo, but there are moments that beg for use of the full surrounds. With such a recent film, I have a hard time understanding why a better transfer couldn't be included.
There are a few extras on the disc, but nothing to get excited about. There is a photo gallery, which gives a hint of what the film could have looked like with a decent transfer. There is also a brief text essay about the last years of Napoleon's life, which is helpful reading for people unfamiliar with the theories surrounding his death. There are also interviews with Antoine de Caunes and Philippe Torreton. Unfortunately, they are text translations of interviews rather than the actual footage.
For fans of history, Monsieur N offers a compelling and fascinating peek at what may have happened in the last years of Napoleon's life. For that alone, I can recommend it as a rental. The weaknesses of the DVD and some of the performances keep me from making a purchase recommendation, though. It's a film that is close to greatness, but isn't willing to be the adventure that it wanted to be.
The jury is still out. We may never know for sure what happened to Napoleon, and Monsieur N doesn't bring us any closer to the truth.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Empire Pictures
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