With Monsieur N., a story of intrigue that suggests plots afoot as former French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte bides his final years as an English prisoner on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, director Antoine de Caunes does just about everything right. Casting, acting, production values, scripting and pacing all make for grand entertainment for discriminating filmgoers. Location lensing on the rustic, rocky coast of South Africa, a convincing St. Helena island, is the eye-pleasing wrapping on this classy package.
Screenwriter Rene Manzor has crafted a clever, nuanced mystery using some reliable devices: the slightly teasing voice-over of a reliable witness to what might have transpired and some equally teasing flash-forwards that increasingly intensify the intrigue and subterfuge.
The film zigzags back and forth between the years around 1815, when Napoleon (Philippe Torreton) is brought to St. Helena, and about 20 years later, when Basil Heathcote (Jay Rodan), the young British lieutenant assigned to keep an eye on the exiled leader, travels to London, Paris and Louisiana to try to unlock the mystery of what might have happened to the former Emperor's ashes and to the Emperor himself.
In the 19th-century equivalent of what is the ultimate in luxury of white-collar-crime confinement, Napoleon lives an enviable life in the lovely Longwood compound where mistresses, servants and his generals are among those at his beck and call. And maybe at his throat, as there is the matter of Napoleon's will on the minds of many. Meals at Longwood are lavish and pastimes include gardening and beekeeping, of which Bonaparte is an apparent devotee. The British military, as headed by the stern and obsessed St. Helena Governor Hudson Lowe (Richard E. Grant), has many hundreds of men stationed on the seemingly impenetrable island to assure that Napoleon does not escape.
As the story unfolds by way of Lt. Heathcote, a number of colorful characters become players in the mystery surrounding Napoleon. General Montholon (Stéphane Freiss) engages in a marital entente with wife Albine (Elsa Zylberstein), who is able to brag that she is Napoleon's most skilled mistress. Other loyal military colleagues who choose exile with their former leader are Marshal Bertrand (Roschdy Zem) and General Gourgaud (Frédéric Pierrot), who years later will help Heathcote through the murky maze of Napoleon's demise.
Cipriani (Bruno Putzulu) is Napoleon's childhood friend who serves as his valet and bears an uncanny resemblance to his master. Last but certainly not least in this historical riddle is young Betsy Balcombe (Siobhan Hewlett), for whom both the former Emperor and Heathcote pine. Napoleon conquers Betsy; Heathcote merely succumbs to an obsession that takes him across continents.
As history has it, Napoleon died of natural causes on St. Helena and was transported to Paris for burial in the famous Les Invalides. Monsieur N. convincingly has it another way, and filmgoers will go the distance toward what the filmmakers suggest.
Performances all around are superb, especially Torreton as the cunning, brilliant, strong, seductive former conqueror. As spectacle, the film dazzles with its cozy, musty interiors and sweeping exteriors. Every frame breathes authenticity and the detailed story, however twisty, never confuses. Artistically, Monsieur N. is a winner and this highly entertaining entry should also be a winner commercially. All this Napoleonic conquest of America needs is the strong reviews and word of mouth it deserves.