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'Monsieur N.' Comes Up Short

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page WE40

THE DARK FLIP SIDE of 2001's fanciful "The Emperor's New Clothes" -- which speculated about what might have happened had Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from exile on the island of St. Helena to a life of middle-class anonymity by installing a look-alike in his place -- "Monsieur N." takes a similar premise but treats it as a mystery of the dark-and-stormy-night variety, complete with Sherlock Holmesian intrigue, ponderous voiceover narration, flashbacks and cheesy old-age makeup. To the extent that it's able to not take itself too seriously, it isn't half bad.

Set mainly on St. Helena, with occasional jumps to Paris, New Orleans and other pit stops far and wide, "Monsieur N." is told from the point of view of Basil Heathcote (Jay Rodan), the young aide-de-camp to Napoleon's British jailer, Hudson Lowe (Richard E. Grant), the martinet governor of the deposed emperor's reluctant island home. Known as Napoleon's "shadow" for his job of checking on the prisoner (Philippe Torreton) twice a day, Heathcote finds himself drawn into the film's central mystery -- what if the man who died in 1821 wasn't really Napoleon and, if he wasn't, who was he? -- by virtue of the fact that Heathcote and his ward both seem to love the same woman.

Philippe Torreton as the exiled Napoleon on the island of St. Helena in "Monsieur N." (Empire Pictures)

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That woman would be Betsy Balcombe (Siobhan Hewlett), a young English beauty whose presence on St. Helena so discombobulates Napoleon, a man heretofore accustomed to taking his lovers straight up (that is, without love) that he reconsiders his plan to slip away from St. Helena's under the cover of night and fog into the hands (or rather the boat, parked just offshore) of waiting Bonapartists. The question of what his newly plucked heartstrings drive him to do instead and how he does it -- indeed if he does it -- provides the juice that keeps "Monsieur N." from being of interest solely to conspiracy-minded historians and paranoid Napoleonophiles, although at times it does seem that they are the movie's target demographic.

Directing from a script by Rene Manzor, journalist-turned-actor-turned-filmmaker Antoine de Caunes for the most whips up a stiff meringue of good old-fashioned suspense, leavening the sometimes ponderous dialogue: "Why ask if the water is fresh when there is nothing else to drink?" answers Napoleon when his island mistress (Elsa Zylberstein) asks him if she can trust his promises.

Unfortunately, that same suspense -- Poisoned wine! Secret pacts! Doppelgangers! -- is sometimes a little too stiff, making "Monsieur N." play at times like a second-tier Agatha Christie mystery and turning Heathcote into a British Hercule Poirot, albeit with a worse mustache.

It's intriguing all right, but in the end "Monsieur N." could use a little less cloak-and-dagger and more of what made "The Emperor's New Clothes" work, i.e., heart.

MONSIEUR N. (Unrated, 127 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, brief toplessness, mild sensuality, sexual innuendo and some violence. In English and French with subtitles. At the Avalon and Cinema Arts Theatre.

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