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Monsieur N. (2003)

Le plus grand mystère de notre histoire tient en une seule lettre

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 129 minutes

UK Certificate: 12a

History is like a coffin for a person long dead and buried – its lid may be fixed firmly in place and the epitaph may have been set in stone, but this need not prevent people from revisiting every now and again to unearth the secrets that lie buried inside. This is very much the view of history adopted by 'Monsieur N.', which begins precisely with the opening of Napoleon Bonaparte's coffin one rainswept night on the remote island of St Helena in 1840. The once great emperor had been kept in exile there by the English from 1815, and was buried there after his lonely death in 1821, only to be disinterred decades later and brought to Paris for an entombment more in keeping with his majesty, beneath the golden dome of Les Invalides.

Or so the official histories would have it, but when Basil Heathcote (Jay Rodan) sees an old flame (Siobhan Hewlett) attending Napoleon's state funeral, he starts to dig around and re-examine what really happened on St Helena, where he had been the Liaison Officer between the crafty tactician Napoleon (Philippe Torreton) and the island's considerably inferior British governor, Sir Hudson Lowe (Richard E. Grant). Heathcote's recollections of the incidents and intrigues on the island, and his interviews with various parties still alive in Paris, lead him to exhume the entire history of Napoleon's end, and to discover both an enigmatic mystery, and an ingenious solution to suit his own romantic nature.

During the period that Napoleon was stuck on St Helena, subjected to humiliating house arrest, budgetary constraints, prolonged illness and a bickering staff, he devoted much of his time to dictating the personal memoirs which subsequently became his legend. 'Monsieur N.' is also concerned with the process of myth-making and image-management, and, as its title suggests, plays upon the notion of the ordinary man hiding within the extraordinary general and emperor.

The established facts of Napoleon's 'last battle' on St Helena, with its double-dealing physicians, arsenic poisonings, legacy-hunting generals, sanctioned adulteries, strategic pregnancies, thwarted raids, wasting diseases and chess-like manoeuvrings, are themselves rich enough in dramatic detail to fill several films, but by teasing from these threads an intricate thriller plot – at least as construed by Heathcote (who is the film's only invented character, although his office did exist) – the richly subtle screenplay of René Manzor breathes new life into old history, giving the chronicles of Napoleon's final years a truly cinematic shape, and going some way (if you are willing to believe) to recuperating the reputation of a great man whose end seemed so inglorious.

Do not be put off by the unjust reputation which director Antoine de Caunes has acquired on these shores from being the sleaze-peddling presenter of TV's 'Eurotrash' – he has long been esteemed as a serious actor in France, and 'Monsieur N.' proves that he is also a talented director. Stunningly filmed on location in St Helena, with impeccable performances and wonderful period detail, 'Monsieur N.' should be seen and treasured before the raft of forthcoming Hollywood films on Napoleon poison all appetite for the Corsican conqueror.

It's Got: Courtly intrigues, legacy-hunting generals, sanctioned adulteries, strategic pregnancies, thwarted raids, wasting diseases, chess-like manoeuvrings, and of course beekeeping, all confined to the environs of a small farmhouse on the remote island of St Helena.

It Needs: Close attention.


Napoleon's final years presented as an escapist mystery, complete with a body, a butler, and a parade of intriguing suspects.