Confusing and Ultimately Unconvincing
It's true that tests have shown that the hair of Napoléon Bonaparte (Philippe Torreton) shows evidence of highly elevated arsenic content. However, further tests have shown that pretty much everyone in the era had elevated arsenic content as compared to current levels. As many as a hundred times current normal levels, I've read. The fact is, as is stated in the movie itself, you can build up a resistance to arsenic, and if you absorb a little at a time over a long time, the levels will build up to the point where your body won't even notice levels of arsenic which would kill a person with no resistance. They're actually talking now, I've read, about doing DNA tests on the remains in the tomb to disprove the theory that it isn't Napoléon in Napoléon's tomb, but all the tests taken at this point have pretty much proven that whoever is interred in that tomb, they didn't die of arsenic poisoning.
The framing story takes place in the days when the body of Napoléon was returned to Paris and interred in a tomb at Les Invalides. Young Colonel Basil Heathcote (Jay Rodan) had been stationed on Saint Helena during Napoléon's imprisonment, and he has come to Paris to see the interment. While there, he sees a woman he thinks is Betsy Balcombe (Siobhan Hewlett), who lived on Saint Helena and was a favourite of the deposed emperor. We see those last days in flashback, when Heathcote was a lieutenant and Hudson Lowe (Richard E. Grant) was governor and the former emperor's jailer. The more Heathcote talks to the people who surrounded the general, the more he begins to think that there was something mysterious in those last days. In those days, Napoléon was surrounded by the last of his hangers-on, those who think that perhaps he will escape Saint Helena as he previously escaped Elba. Or, more so, people who hope that he will remember them in his will.
The special features talk about the mysteries behind the death of Napoléon, and they mention that there are people who believe he had some sort of hormonal imbalance which led to his slowly turning into a woman. Now, I think we can all agree that this is one of the most ridiculous theories out there. As in, that's not actually physically possible. And that's the thing. Filmmaker Antoine de Caunes seems to believe that it isn't all that ridiculous. Weird, but not ridiculous. He seems to be one of those people who believes that it would have been impossible for Napoléon Bonaparte to have died a normal death of stomach cancer while in exile. That simply isn't the kind of death such a man would have died. But the fact is, it happens all the time. Great men die prosaic deaths, and prosaic men die heroic deaths. There's no logic behind it. People want there to be, but there really isn't. The saying "there are no coincidences in politics" is a lie, and the idea that there is reason behind everything is a false one.
The problem with the structure of the film is that I missed something important to the story's chronology. I thought Cipriani (Bruno Putzulu) had been dead for years by the time Napoléon was supposed to have died, which means the story in my head made the story onscreen impossible. I also had a hard time keeping track who most of the people were; there were three or four I knew, but mostly there were "that one French guy" and "that other French guy." Richard E. Grant, I knew, but in my head, he's still Roland from [i]L.A. Story[/i] and has a lot of verve. (Honestly, a little too much for the story.) There are plenty of subplots running through the thing, and perhaps I would have done better if I knew a bit more about Napoleonic history. But I honestly have no idea how many of the characters in this were real and how many were invented for the purpose of the movie. It was disjointed, and it wasn't rendered skillfully enough to let those disconnected bits of story flow together.
I'd really like to see a story about the final days of Napoléon which didn't delve into conspiracism. It's too easy a crutch. People don't seem to understand how the real world works. Any British officer who let Napoléon Bonaparte walk off Saint Helena could have been sentenced with treason, I'm sure, and certainly would have suffered very serious ramifications of some sort. Yes, it seems that Hudson Lowe mistreated Napoléon pretty seriously and was generally held responsible for everything that happened, but doesn't that make it even less likely that he would be part of any Napoleonic conspiracy. At least the movie didn't talk about the damned wallpaper, I guess, but there isn't much to be said about the story as presented. Maybe one of these days, I'll actually read some about man and era. I've dabbled a bit, but it's kind of one of the parts of history I skip over. It's important, and it shaped the Civil War--which is one of the parts of history that I know--but I'm still not terribly interested.