The legacy of France’s most celebrated commander is studied with great detail in A&E’s splendid “Napoleon.” With an ardent lead perf from Christian Clavier, visuals that far surpass most miniseries and nuanced direction from “Nuremberg” helmer Yves Simoneau, project, co-produced by 11 companies and filmed in seven countries, explains the man in full, from his strange relationship with Josephine de Beauharnais to his exile on the volcanic island of St. Helena. It’s also quite the rebound from “Benedict Arnold,” the cabler’s much-knocked January biopic that registered not a bit with critics or viewers. The expensive and classy treatment afforded Bonaparte should translate into solid ratings and should generate interest worldwide as a big-ticket broadcast or theatrical item.
The grandness of “Napoleon” is appreciated even more since its confines are limited; having every right to shrink things in scope and cost in order to talk down to TV auds, producers instead have ramped up the elements. Matching the exquisite scenery, well-choreographed battles and beautiful costumes are performances that are full of personality and edge; along with Clavier, Isabella Rossellini is ideal as Napoleon’s love, while John Malkovich, as foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, is effectively low-key as a supporter who ultimately changes allegiances. Of the name cast, only Gerard Depardieu is downshifted to almost no effect as Joseph Fouche, an opportunistic minister of police whom many regard as the father of today’s spy system.
“Napoleon” begins and ends at Longwood, the South Atlantic island residence where the Corsican general spent his last years after being banished by the British in 1815. Alone and unwilling to communicate with the locals, he relates his tale of ascension from obscurity to prominence to 14-year-old Betsy Balcombe (Tamsin Egerton-Dick).
He starts his story in 1794 Paris; the French Revolution is in full swing, and after Robespierre is executed, France starts to restore itself. As a 27-year-old military greenhorn, Napoleon falls for Josephine and simultaneously makes his first serious mark as a true leader by thwarting a regional royalist riot.
Rising through the ranks, Napoleon takes on several other fights. He defeats the Austrians in Italy with an army he has transformed from aimless to precise; in Arcole, he attacks an impenetrable bridge, thus ensuring France stays free from foreign rule; and he clashes with the Turks and Brits in Egypt, which then was the main gateway to the Orient. As Napoleon is winning the people’s affection, he’s also endearing himself to politicians like Talleyrand, a renowned figure who is adored by the masses and the high courts.
Napoleon’s rise is almost complete back home, where he stages a successful coup d’etat in 1804 with brothers Josef (Ennio Fantastichini) and Lucien (Yves Jacques), but he grows circumspect about Josephine, who cannot bear him a child to preserve his dynasty. He also survives an assassination attempt, which he lays squarely on Louis XIV’s cousin, whom Napoleon puts before a firing range. The public worships him; they anoint him Emperor of the French — he seems to be the only one who can prevent the monarchy from returning to the throne — and he’s crowned by Pope Pius VII (John Wood).
His supreme victory takes place in 1805 Austerlitz, where Napoleon strikes preemptively at the Austrians and Russians, who are preparing to invade France from the East. But it’s here where Napoleon slips; things change as his siblings become greedier, and opposing forces plan nonstop raids. He also takes a Polish mistress, Marie Walewska, and cuts ties with Josephine, whom he still adores but is frustrated by her inability to conceive.
Later conflicts with the British, who have landed in Lisbon, and in Essling, where more men die than he had predicted, dent Napoleon’s reputation. He is losing control as opposers assault from all sides, the Austrian emperor allows Napoleon to take his daughter’s hand in marriage — they have a baby boy, thus ensuring imperial succession — and he suffers huge blows from the 1812 decimation of troops in Moscow after Czar Alexander (Toby Stephens) reneges on his alliance, and, eventually, Waterloo, where a crushed Napoleon is whipped soundly by the Prussian army. Upon trying to travel to America, he lands in England, where the Brits imprison him in Longwood on St. Helene, where he died in 1821.
A tour of Europe’s most important political centers and most lavish castles, “Napoleon” is a spectacle. Simoneau and production designer Richard Cunin have handled the mammoth assembly — from cavalries to cannons — with precision and the finished product brings to mind event pics like “The Lord of the Rings” and “Gladiator.” Narratively, Simoneau and writer Didier Decoin, having based the teleplay on Max Gallo’s biography, have blended expertly the affair between their hero and Josephine with the business at hand, without ever pushing the romance at the expense of anything else.
Clavier’s turn reps a terrific achievement. Without succumbing to a caricature — that Napoleon was nothing more than a short man with giant dreams — he is charismatic, confident, charming and, finally, flawed because of his power grabs. He’s totally convincing as the sole individual who almost presided over all of Europe. Rossellini is equally superb as someone who dealt with infidelities, ego and the weight of infertility.
Going against type are a subdued Malkovich and Depardieu, who play important roles in France’s evolution but disappear without any resonance; though it’s easy to see why Talleyrand is dismissed as a confidant after Napoleon loses faith in him, Fouche’s discharge isn’t explained very well.
Guy Dufaux’s lensing — rich and colorful is the norm, but bleached and wobbly during war — and Richard Gregoire’s elegant score enhance “Napoleon” as much as any character could, and Yves Langlois’ editing condenses without confusion.