by Jay Seaver
Yep, you know it's January when not just the major studios, but the smaller indie distributors are dumping their less-than-stellar works, in hopes of getting some business from the people who saw everything in December and maybe, just maybe, a favorable blurb to put on the DVD cover a couple months down the road. The latter, at least, they will not be getting here.Napoleon Bonaparte is a figure whose stature very soon became bigger than mere history and entered the realm of the mythological. As Ivy Moylun, the leader of our post-film discussion at the Brattle Theater's Sunday Eye-Opener series pointed out, he's rather like Elvis Presley in America, in that many preferred to invent a more fitting last act to their lives than what they had; a man whose armies marched from the Atlantic to Moscow deserves not to die in ignominious exile. Even if they don't have a grand finale, surely there should be one final, lost adventure, akin to Bruce Campbell as Elvis in Bubba Ho-Tep. Sadly, Monsieur N is no Bubba Ho-Tep.
"There's a joke about this two-hour movie not being short enough to be made."
(And though that comparison is nerdy enough to be mine, it's Ivy's. Credit/blame where it's due.)
As the film opens, the isle of St. Helena is getting a new military governor, Hudson Lowe (Richard E. Grant); his aide-de-camp Basil Heathcote (Jay Rodan) will provide the narration, looking back from 1840 (the meat of the film spans the period of 1816-1819). Basil will become smitten with Betsy Blacombe (Siobahn Hewlett), the pretty daughter of of Napoleon's associates, but she only has eyes for her "Boney" (I like to imagine that the French filmmakers didn't have any idea how vulgar that nickname sounds). There could have been a good story about a humble soldier trying to win her heart despite having Napoleon (Philippe Torreton) for a rival. Another good story would have been the clash of Bonaparte and Lowe, who went 0-for-the-Napoleonic Wars as an officer. Hell, if Bonaparte showed any real drive to escape his exile again, that would have been something. The idea that the British might try to kill Napoleon because the cost of keeping him imprisoned was tremendous might work. Then there's the absurdity of Bonaparte's courtiers staying with him, playing their intrigues as though he were still in power.
Unfortunately, director Antoine de Caunes and writer René Manzor (whose best-known credit to Americans is probably Highlander 3) can't pick an interesting direction. They'll dabble in one, then move to another, jumping forward to 1940 where a middle-aged Heathcote is trying to solve some mystery of Bonaparte's final days, and then jump back. An attempt to break Bonaparte out of his prison in the middle of the movie fizzles, with the suggestion that it failed as part of a larger plan, but nothing Bonaparte does afterward seems more worthwhile then getting off the island in the middle of the Atlantic. They never develop any sort of momentum whatsoever.
From one perspective, Heathcote is the perfect narrator - he's got access to all the information and doesn't overpower the story. He is also, unfortunately, completely without any interesting features of his own. He's perhaps the worst when showing the older versions of the characters; while none of them seem to have grown or particularly changed in twenty-two years despite some grayer hair, he just doesn't seem to have any experience beneath his belt at all.
The rest of the cast is somewhat better. Stephane Freiss and Frederic Pierrot are, true, rather interchangeable as Napoleon's courtiers, and Ms. Hewlett is, well, very pretty. Richard E. Grant is able to maintain a somewhat amusing scowling anger for the film's entire two-hour running time. Philippe Torreton, however, is actually good, making a fine Napoleon, inhabiting the role physically while also managing to balance the contradictory notions that the film requires him to espouse; he must often display arrogance (not accepting mail addressed to "General Bonaparte" rather than "Emperor Napoleon") while in the next breath wishing he could be a bee rather than the queen (again, I imagine the French not noting the double entendre this will evoke when it's subtitled into English).
In terms for incredible frustration, though, nothing matches the final scene (skip to the boldfaced slam if you really must): Heathcote must be the most pathetic man on earth, having tracked down Betsy to Baton Rouge, traveled across an ocean to get there in a century where this is a very big deal, learned her husband (who he imagines might be an escaped Bonaparte) died four years ago, and actually stood on her step watching her, then turned around. Girl of your dreams and her husband's been dead for long enough for her to have mourned - take your freakin' shot!It's a bad movie. It's bad enough that I can actually imagine the people in charge of the home video release plucking "Philippe Torreton, however, is actually good!" out of this review. And that's pretty bad.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=11191&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/31/05 13:25:02