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DVD Review: Napoleon and Love

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Napoleon & Love, a nine part 1974 BBC dramatic series, is available March 1 in a three-DVD set from Acorn Media Group.

The episodic series recounts the many love affairs of the French general as he powers his way through the armies of Europe to an Emperor’s throne, only to lose it with his ill-advised Russian campaign. Starring Ian Holm as Bonaparte and Billie Whitelaw as Josephine, the greatest love and greatest disappointment of his life, it was written by Philip Mackie.

The series focuses on the man’s personal life with some attention to his political intrigues; oddly it pays little or no attention to the warrior’s battles; indeed the only battle scene in all nine episodes deals with the Battle of Waterloo, and that lasts little more than a moment or two. The focus of the series is clear from the fact that eight of the nine episodes take their titles from one of the women in his life at the time: “Rose” (one of the names associated with Josephine), “Josephine,” “Pauline,” Georgina,” “Eleonore,” “Marie Walewska,” “Maria-Luisa,” and “Louise.” The final episode reiterates the theme: “The End of Love.”

It is Holm as the mercurial Corsican who holds the series together. He begins somewhat shakily as the young general ambitious but lacking in funds, and not all that convincing as the naïf duped by the sophisticates in Paris into a marriage to an older woman with a reputation who has no love for him. As the character grows older, and the actor sheds his youthful wig, his performance becomes much more believable. He rants; he raves, but most of all he commands. He sees what he wants and takes it. If at times he is almost absurd in his relations with the fair sex, one must remember this is Napoleon as portrayed by the Brits. It is not likely to be a heroic portrait. His chemistry with Whitelaw as at first she plays with him and later finds herself falling in love with him as he turns away from her to the other women lights up the screen. Whitelaw herself is bewitching as the tempting woman of the world, who knows her man, and knows how to get what she wants from him. One can well understand why she was Samuel Becket’s favorite actress.

As we have come to expect from these British dramas the supporting cast is excellent, although one has to wonder why it is that some play with accents and some don’t. Of course, no one attempts a French accent. As in the contemporary Les Miz, the French all seem to prefer British accents. Peter Bowles turns in a gem as the ridiculous ladies’ man and Cavalry Captain, Murat. Peter Jeffrey is convincingly subdued as the scheming Talleyrand. A ridiculously young Tim Curry appears as Josephine’s son from her first marriage, Eugene. Sorcha Cusack is her devoted daughter, Hortense.

Unlike the more recent British costume dramas which are shot outdoors and on location as well as in studio, back when this was shot they relied much more on the studio. This gives the production more the feel of a stage performance than the kind of film we get today. More often than not the scenes are confined to interiors, sumptuous interiors, but interiors, and confining nonetheless. Costumes on the other hand are lavish and carefully integrated with character. Murat is dressed in clownish finery, while Talleyrand is more restrained. Napoleon appears as he does in some of the many portraits, but it is to the ladies that the truly beautiful couture is given, beautiful women are dressed beautifully.

Although each of the three discs includes a disclaimer noting that the development of video recording may have caused some problems with the rerecording of the older audio and video, I didn’t notice anything awry in any of the episodes. Both video and audio quality are quite acceptable. Extras included on the final disc include filmographies of some of the major cast members and a short time line of historical events during Napoleon’s reign. While I would have liked some program notes along with the set, more often than not these sets don’t bother with them. One can only hope.

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