As with may other screen biopics of the 19th century French emperor, Napoleon, a 2002 internationally flavoured miniseries, is a lengthy affair. Its four 90 minute episodes allow for its makers to cover a huge portion of Napoleon’s life, from the age of 25 to his eventual death, taking in the major military campaigns as well as the numerous romantic entanglements. Yet for the breadth that this entails, the six hour duration also means that the viewer has all the more time to dwell of the series’ flaws, and in this respect Napoleon certainly isn’t lacking.
Indeed, such is the abundance of problems that is perhaps best to emphasise its strong points first. Napoleon is a big budget enterprise, one that throws all of its money at the screen, in doing so providing lavish, squib-heavy action scenes, a purported 20,000 extras and an all-star cast including Gerard Depardieu (who also serves as one of the producers), Isabella Rossellini and John Malkovich. It also has a charismatic lead in Christian Clavier as the eponymous emperor, but from here the quality dries up.
The major fault lies in Didier Decoin’s screenplay. Based on Max Gallo’s respected biography/novel, there would appear to be definite conflict between factual accuracy and dramatic content. This respect for history may please the purists, but for the rest of us it renders the pacing all wrong and it’s an element that isn’t helped by having Yves Simoneau (perhaps best known for his trashy Jamie Lee Curtis potboiler, Mother’s Boys) at the helm. His clumsy handling of the material only makes this lack of pace all the more apparent - indeed, there’s little sense of watching four distinct episodes, but rather of one long dirge, and there certainly isn’t any impetus to the watch the next instalment once one has finished. Of course, I’m not suggesting that Simoneau and Decoin should have employed cliffhangers or any similar methods, but for such a long piece Napoleon requires some extra momentum beyond moving turgidly from battle to battle, lover to lover, year to year.
The decision to chase the international market, despite being a French production, also doesn’t help matters much. Decoin’s dialogue, presumably written initially in his native tongue, arrives on screen in an English form that is akin to spoken subtitles such is the lack of any true character. Moreover, a number of cast members, including Fantastichini in the fairly prominent role of Napoleon’s brother, have quite clearly been dubbed - often unsuccessfully - in English in order to satisfy this larger market, a decision that once again removes any further hint of what may have flavoured the original. As for the cast members allowed their own tongues, they gamely struggle on, but for every Malkovich who providing oddly endearing no matter what the script (here he does those arrhythmic speech patterns that he employs whenever bored), there’s a Rossellini who can do nothing with the part and simply dies on screen, excruciatingly, over the lengthy duration. Of course, it doesn’t help that many of her scenes, like the majority over the entire miniseries, are simple two-handers that take place in large, opulently art directed rooms which, much like Napoleon itself, demonstrate the huge budget but also remain cold and ultimately empty.
Further disappointment arrives with the disc’s presentation. An anamorphic and what would appear to be a pin sharp print is provided, albeit one that is hampered severely by an NTSC to PAL transfer, thereby adding an ugly haze to proceedings and an occasional unsightly purple tinge. Moreover, this also results in a lack of definition during the darker scenes, at which point artefacting also becomes apparent. The soundtrack fares better, with the original English DD2.0 (as per the original television transmission) having less to contend. Indeed, it remains crisp and clear throughout, so much so that any dubbing becomes immediately apparent.
As for the extras, when supplying the review copies, Metrodome failed to include disc three, the one which houses all of the bonus features. As such I can only quote the press release in saying that this third disc contains:
"DVD extras include ‘Napoleon Bonaparte – The Glory Of France’; a documentary from A&E’s EMMY award-winning series BIOGRAPHY. A ‘Making Of Napoleon’ featurette, A fascinating Napoleon timeline, A 76 image picture gallery & trailers for forthcoming Chronicle titles."
On the "promise" of these extras, an admittedly cautionary rating of 5 has been given in accordance with their scope and quantity. However, note that this only a cautionary rating and if the special features disc does arrive from Metrodome then this section will be updated accordingly.