Director Antoine de Caunes has adapted Rene Mansor's fine screenplay concerning the enigma that still exists as to the final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte into a film that relates the period of history from 1816 to 1840 during which time the bifurcated responses of the British and French to the legend of Napoleon initiated the scandal that still piques our interest.
Opening in 1816 Napoleon (the brilliant Philippe Torreton) is imprisoned on the island of St. Helena along with his most trusted supporters and various citizens who elected to follow him into exile - with an eye on Napoleon's fortune when he dies. There is a new British Governor appointed, Hudson Lowe (Richard E. Grant), who is steely and determined to prevent Napoleon's escape and yes, even protect the British government from the costly extended prison expenditures a prolonged exile will produce. Lowe appoints Basil Heathcote (Jay Rodan) to sit in watch of the Emperor/General only to come under the spell of the mysterious Napoleon and the spell of a young girl Betsy Balcombe (Siobhan Hewlett) who is in love with Napoleon. Others among Napoleon's party include the Montholons (Stephane Freiss and Elsa Zylberstein) the latter of whom Napoleon keeps as his mistress and impregnates, Cipriani (Bruno Putzulu) his butler and half brother, Ali (Igor Skreblin) his bodyguard, Marshal Bertand (Roschdy Zem) his aide de camp, among others. Napoleon's self perception as the Emperor makes him unavailable to close scrutiny and rumors fly about his proposed escapes and about the British idea of poisoning him. There is great mystery surrounding Napoleon's ultimate death and burial and this mystery is what drives the story in flash forward sequences to the investigation of Napoleon's ultimate exhumation to see if the man buried in Les Invalides in Paris is actually Napoleon Bonaparte - and if not, where is the true Napoleon buried?
The period atmosphere on St. Helena is scrupulously recreated, allowing a superb playing ground for the many fine performances by an excellent cast. We see Napoleon as we've never seen him, a multi-dimensional character with whom we, as viewers, tend to sympathize. This is not only due to the fine script but also to the unique portrayal by Philippe Torreton. The film is in both French and English, with English subtitles for the French only. And therein lies the fault of this otherwise superb film. The ambient sounds of the crashing sea and the annoyingly loud musical score by Stephan Eicher cover the English dialogue to such an extent that it cannot be heard most of the time. This is a film that would greatly benefit from re-mastering to add English subtitles for the entire film AND by making it available in full screen instead of the widescreen that reduces much of the action to miniaturization! Otherwise, this is a superb period piece that opens questions about historical accuracy that invite investigation. Grady Harp, July 06