"So long as men are swayed by their passion, then women will have the power to change the course of history...for better or worse."
An entertaining look at the amours of the Little General. Acorn Media has released Napoleon & Love, a three-disc, nine-episode U.K. miniseries from 1974 starring Ian Holm, Peter Bowles, and Billie Whitelaw as Josephine. Focusing exclusively on the sexual politics that drove French society―and, apparently, Napoleon, as well―Napoleon & Love ignores cannon and gunpowder for conquests of a far more intimate nature, with pleasing results. No extras to speak of, but the performances are quite amusing.
Considering the length of Napoleon & Love (over eight hours), a complete synopsis isn't within the scope of this review...so let's just set the stage. Beginning in Marseilles, 1795, when Napoleon was a hungry, unemployed brigadier general, Napoleon & Love looks at the romantic steps Napoleon took to help achieve his exalted position as Emperor. Having made a name for himself during the Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte (Ian Holm) is at a loss as to how to navigate the post-war peace and new "Reign of Pleasure." Born a second son behind brother Joseph (Edward de Souza), and recently jilted by the woman he loved because he couldn't access the Bonaparte family money, Napoleon can't enter society successfully since he's altogether too serious, too intense, to play the flirting games that are necessary for young men to ascend the ladders of political success.
Advised by future mentor Paul Barras (T.P. McKenna) to latch onto a successful, older woman ("The women of Paris are politics."), Napoleon settles on an old family friend who provides "practical sex" for the driven little general...but not a "yes" to a marriage proposal from the hasty, na´ve Napoleon. Sensing that Napoleon will be of military use to him as he tries to consolidate power, Barras asks one of his mistresses, Rose (Billie Whitelaw), to be "nice" to Napoleon, a suggestion she finds distasteful...but one she agrees to when Barras picks another mistress as his favorite, dismissing Rose as too old and too expensive. Thus sets into motion one of the great love affairs of history...if you believe the movies and comic books. Here, however, Josephine is portrayed as a scheming, amoral temptress who cheats on Napoleon constantly before and after their marriage, and who eventually breaks his na´ve, trusting heart, ruining him for all the other women who enter his life, including lovely actress Georgina (Nicola Pagett), officer's wife Pauline (Cheryl Kennedy), society mistress Eleonore (Diana Quick), Madame Duchatel (Stephanie Beacham), Polish countess Marie Walewska (Catherine Schell), and Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria (Susan Wooldridge).
Just for the record, I'm in no way a historian on Napoleon; what I learned about that emperor/dictator, saint/devil, came from eighth-grade history class and various movie incarnations, from Brando, both in Desiree (icky) and as Stanley Kowalski in A Street Car Named Desire ("They got this thing called the Napoleonic Code!"), to Bondarchuk's stunning adaptation of War and Peace...and his stunningly bad take on Waterloo (you have not lived until you've seen that sweaty, florid Rod Steiger nightmare). So I have no idea if what's presented here in Napoleon & Love is accurate or not (and let's face it: double-checking on public-written Wikipedia offers no peace of mind, either). Historians and Napoleon buffs would very likely find fault with it (buffs always find fault with movie versions of their heroes), but speaking as just a relatively uninformed layman, I found Napoleon & Love consistently entertaining and frequently amusing.
By eschewing gunpowder and the 1812 Overture (frankly that's a relief, too) for the ballroom and the boudoir, Napoleon & Love rejects the spectacle that's so often associated with films about this subject matter and instead focuses on the psycho-sexual forces that first formed, then led, Napoleon through his meteoric rise to Emperor. Written by Philip Mackie (Raffles and the excellent The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes), Napoleon & Love, through its long format, is able to delve rather deeply into its portrait of Napoleon, who's shown to be alternately na´ve, weak, irrationally romantic, heartbroken, cruel, sadistic, and ultimately, sadder and wiser about love. The open corruption of French politics, as well as the accepted games of flirtation deemed crucial to social intercourse (ahem) and political maneuvering, are highlighted with deft, cynical humor, contrasted nicely with the sincerity (and manipulation) of Napoleon's romantic misadventures. It's a clever script, as well, with funny, telling lines throughout (when Whitelaw puts her foot down and declares, "I will not stay married to a man I don't love," McKenna smoothly replies, "Most women do." Whitelaw counters with, "To a man I never see," which McKenna lobs back with, "Most women long for that.") As essayed by Ian Holm, Mackie's Napoleon is often times seen as a surprisingly foolish character, one who is brilliantly attuned to the politics of war, both on the field and behind the closed doors of power, but who is utterly clueless as to how to treat women, or how he comes across to the fairer sex, or ultimately how indifferent he is when he manipulates them once he's been wronged for the last time by the love of his life: Josephine.
Holm, a terrific supporting actor who's best when playing slightly gamey, slippery characters (everyone loves his role in Alien, and rightly so, but a particular favorite of mine is his insufferably callous adulterer in Woody Allen's 1988 Another Woman), came to his lead turn in Napoleon & Love right after he started to make a (minor) name for himself in several big-budget international films, such as The Fixer, Oh! What a Lovely War, Nicholas and Alexandra, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Young Winston (all of them, come to think of it, relative big-budget failures). So the chance for the diminutive actor to take the lead in a nine-part TV series about one of the most recognizable figures from Western history, must have felt to the actor that he had finally "arrived." And run with the character Holm does. I've never seen a "subdued" portrait of Napoleon on film, but Holm does manage to make him alternately icy, preoccupied, and focused, before he lets Napoleon go into one of his romantic rages, either trying to smother Billie Whitelaw with kisses, or raging and screaming at those who don't measure up to his herculean expectations. It's a strange performance, at once subtle (during the scenes of political intrigue) and delightfully hammy (anytime he goes overboard romantically, such as his grossly funny panting and mewling over Whitelaw), and it's a good precursor to some of his subsequent, more famous roles.
Whitelaw may not at first fit your image of what you think Josephine should be like (I guess I had a more idealized, slightly Maria Antoinette-ish image of her in my mind: younger, more innocently sensual...but I guess that comes from all the romanticized hogwash about the great lovers in the popular culture). However, she's perfect as to how scribe Mackie finds her: deliciously amoral and scheming, sexually adroit (she laughs to her friends about how bad Nappy is in bed), a consummate liar, and finally, a rather pathetic figure that clings in vain to the notoriety that once came with being Napoleon's wife. While not a classic beauty, Whitelaw does have a mean, nasty eroticism to her slinky eyes and cruel mouth that fits Mackie's version of Josephine well. And she's a match for Holm's under/overplaying, pitching her performance to match his perfectly. Other turns are equally accomplished here, including my favorite, Nicola Pagett, who's wonderfully playful with Holm, Stephanie Beacham, who's sexy as Napoleon's mistress who wanted too much from him, and cool, collected, beautiful Catherine Schell as "the Polish wife" who may have succeeded in reaching Napoleon emotionally (as well as succeeding in carrying his child)...only to be thwarted in happiness by politics (and let's not forget another favorite, Peter Bowles, who's delicious as the horndog Murat, whose sly line readings kill every single time).
Here are the nine episodes of the three-disc set, Napoleon & Love, as described on the on-screen episode menus:
Episode 1: Rose
Episode 2: Josephine
Episode 3: Pauline
Episode 4: Georgina
Episode 5: Eleonore
Episode 6: Marie Walewska
Episode 7: Maria-Luisa
Episode 8: Louise
Episode 9: The End of Love
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.