29 Nov 2023

Review: Napoleon

From At The Movies, 7:07 pm on 29 November 2023

The astonishing force of nature that is Sir Ridley Scott takes the historians head-on with his latest epic Napoleon.

Well into his 80s now, Ridley Scott is showing no signs of slowing down, let alone retiring. 

His track record is astonishing – and not just his glittering CV, including Alien, Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner and the rest.

There are his recent films - The Martian, All the Money in the World, House of Gucci and The Last Duel.   

Joaquin Phoenix

Photo: Screenshot

Say what you like about them, you can’t deny their size and their scope. And now Scott takes on an even bigger one – Napoleon.

Napoleon Bonaparte has defeated some of filmdom’s best, it should be said. Stanley Kubrick famously tried and failed to bring to life the unlikely tale of the uneducated Corsican corporal who rose to pretty much conquer the world.  

It’s a story that defies organising into a story. How do you tell it?

Scott isn’t the sort of producer/director to faff about looking for hidden meanings in a narrative. 

“Damn the torpedoes” seems to be his attitude, as he starts with Bonaparte’s first victory – against his own people as it happens, the rabble fresh from executing Queen Marie Antoinette.

Napoleon is played by Joaquin Phoenix – no stranger to saturnine, slightly unlikable people like The Joker and the villainous Caesar in Scott’s own Gladiator.  

Like all previous Bonapartes, Phoenix plays him swarthy, humourless and self-centred. Having conquered the streets of Paris, he now takes on the English, who France is at war with as usual.

Returning from the Battle of Toulon, he goes to a victory party in Paris, where he catches the eye of a famous courtesan.  

Vanessa Kirby rather flatters the actual Josephine who in real life was older than Napoleon and far from classically beautiful.  No matter, Kirby is still the best thing in this Napoleon.

The trouble with any account of this period is it’s almost impossible to make sense of it all, particularly the height of the French Revolution.  

Every week, someone new seemed to be in charge, with the previous incumbent, as often as not, sent to the guillotine.   

Anyone who could survive in such circumstances was not only brilliant but lucky – a perfect illustration of the famous adage ‘chaos is a ladder’. 

And for years Napoleon was both. He was a gifted soldier and his record speaks for itself – 61 battles, most of them won.  

But 61 battles are not, in themselves, the basis of a good story. There’s a reason why Napoleon is more remembered for the few campaigns he lost – Trafalgar, Moscow, Waterloo – than the many he won. 

By trying to cram in as much of the Emperor’s story into one movie, Scott ends up driving his audience away.

At its heart, the story is meant to be that of Napoleon and Josephine – by this account the most important person in his life, even if their relationship appears to be a little opaque.

He was clearly besotted with her, but did she love him?  Did she even like him much?  

In some scenes he seems to be just the latest of a string of men Josephine uses to survive turbulent times. She famously got pregnant twice in prison to escape the guillotine. 

In others, he’s the love of her life. And if she treats him like dirt occasionally, well that’s the way he likes it.

In fact - according to some accounts - both of these may be accurate, but that’s no good for a movie, particularly one in desperate need of a solid underpinning like the epic Napoleon.  

The best we can say about David Scarpa’s script is it does its best, but falls under the weight of history.

Mind you, Napoleon has defeated the best over the years. Even War and Peace struggled to make him believable.  

It’s interesting that Kirby is at her best in this film when she’s not talking. Those expressive eyes are able to offer a hint of what a Napoleon and Josephine story might have been.

And Scott is at his best when he gives himself limits. This is a biopic that might have worked better if he’d concentrated on a week, or a month, or just a year in the life of a maddeningly ungraspable anti-hero.  

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