Monsieur N

Monsieur N


Reviewed by: David Haviland

When considering Monsieur N, I was reminded of the proverb: "History is written by the victors." I realised what little I knew about Napoleon smacked of contemporary British propaganda. I knew he was a short, fat megalomaniac, who walked funny with his hand inside his tunic. I knew of his losses in Russia and at Waterloo and his exile on Elba, but nothing of his victories.

Directed by Eurotrash's Antoine de Caunes, the film takes a more respectful approach to the subject, not surprisingly. It tells of the last years of the Emperor's life, imprisoned by the British on St Helena, a remote island off the west coast of Africa. Napoleon (Philippe Torreton) retains a loyal entourage of officers who help him plot his escape and evade the attentions of the island's overzealous governor, Sir Hudson Lowe (Richard E. Grant).

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Despite the comic potential of this tale of hubris and noble descent, de Caunes plays it alarmingly straight, weaving a detective mystery around the central drama, with Officer Heathcote (Jay Rodan) investigating The Mystery Of The Emperor's Corpse.

The best thing is the dialogue, appropriately rich is metaphor and bon mots. When Napoleon's mistress asks whether she can trust his promises, he replies "Why ask if the water is fresh when there is nothing else to drink?" The cinematography impresses, also, with lavish moments reminiscent of Cyrano De Bergerac.

However, there's more to filmmaking than chiaroscuro and quips, but sadly not here. The acting is variable, with most of the English cast struggling with the rhythms of the Gallic dialogue, and Grant giving a particularly hammy turn that would have been quite at home in Carry On Don't Lose Your Head. The French fare better, with de Caunes's partner Elsa Zylberstein especially memorable as Napoleon's venal mistress.

The cast aren't helped by René Manzor's confused script that takes a blatantly humourous premise far too seriously and then is unsure whether to turn it into a weighty drama, or a twisty thriller.

The conflict between Napoleon and Lowe does have promising moments, but is never adequately developed, as Manzor wastes time on pointless romantic subplots and red herrings for a mystery that's introduced far too late. At one point Napoleon pronounces, "Men's passion for the fantastical is such that they will sacrifice reason to it," a statement for which this film provides ample support.

Reviewed on: 22 Apr 2004
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The last years of Napoleon's life.
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Director: Antoine de Caunes

Writer: René Manzor

Starring: Philippe Torreton, Richard E Grant, Jay Rodan, Elsa Zylberstein, Roschdy Zem, Bruno Putzulu, Stéphane Freiss, Frédéric Pierrot, Siobhan Hewlett

Year: 2003

Runtime: 129 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: France/UK


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