Written by Tom Augustine.
Everyone has their blind spots as far as world history is concerned, right? Periods that they simply never got the chance to bone up on, or that weren’t in their high school curriculum. For me, that blind spot is most certainly the Napoleonic era. Don’t get me wrong, I know the cliffs notes – he’s short, he conquered a lot of territory, he was a great military mind, he was French. Something about Waterloo – not the ABBA song. But to say that I am perhaps a little short on insight on the life and impact of the famous Frenchman is a fair shout – ‘was he involved in the Hundred Years War?’ I asked my friend, a history buff, at the screening. ‘That was like, five hundred years before Napoleon’s time’, he laughed. I mention this because Napoleon, the new film by Ridley Scott, feels somewhat designed for a viewer going in cold on the Napoleon years. A two-hundred-million historical epic behemoth, it’s the kind of film we rarely get anymore.
Napoleon finds eighty-five-year-old Scott returning to the era of his very first (and one of his very best) films – the enormously accomplished The Duellists, an insightful gem of a film that explores the ridiculous lengths that notions of masculine honour can extend to, even unto death. That film was set during the reign of Napoleon – now, a career-length later, Scott is taking on the man himself, in a film that feels eager to touch on all the ‘greatest hits’ of the historical record, sometimes to a fault. It’s a film that stumbles over itself in its desperation to move from big event to big event, at times hopping years at a time between scenes, perhaps a side effect of a film that feels notably streamlined from the four-and-a-half-hour cut that Scott teased during the making of the film. It’s also a project that has encountered a fair bit of controversy from history buffs; as with the great historical epics of yore, there’s more than a little artistic licence being taken, not least in the fact that, as with Scott films like Exodus: Gods and Kings, Kingdom of Heaven and Gladiator, actors generally are speaking in the accents of their homeland, including the actor filling the boots of Napoleon himself, American Joaquin Phoenix. Scott is something of a paradox – many have noted that he is work is either elevated trash or great art slightly tarnished, a man whose first three films are arguably his best, and whose recent work seesaws between surprisingly brilliant (Kingdom of Heaven, The Last Duel) to markedly less accomplished (House of Gucci, All the Money in the World). Scott works best when wielding sequences of immense scale, a concise and remarkable visualist capable of producing work of such muscularity that it swallows pretenders to the throne whole. The peak of this is almost certainly Gladiator, the ultimate distillation of mid-to-late-era Scott, a work of unabashed commercialism that is nevertheless exceptionally accomplished, heartfelt Hollywood entertainment.
It feels a little like fate that veteran filmmaker Ridley Scott would one day make a film about the life and conquests of Napoleon Bonaparte. Now eighty-five, his latest film thrums with the energy and bombast of a much younger filmmaker; if it skimps on the depth, it certainly has a great time (and looks good) doing so.
Napoleon, like Gladiator, is Scott distilled – for better and for worse. It is the work of an elder statesman who moves with utmost confidence, even when that confidence leads to moments that don’t entirely sell. We meet Napoleon in a striking opening scene: the end of the French Revolution, the beheading of Marie Antoinette. It’s a brutal and upsetting moment. As Antoinette’s head is held aloft to a baying crowd, Napoleon watches on, then just a lowly soldier, his face unmoving, unreadable. Scott’s Napoleon is a figure of contrasts and conflicting motivations, a great leader of men and a shrewd commander who, in his personal life, was utterly in thrall to the women around him – his mother first and, later, his one-day wife, the imposing Josephine. As played by Vanessa Kirby, Josephine is a figure of great intelligence possessed of a fearsome survivalist streak. Her place at the top of society has been hard-won, and she instantly dispels images of the lonely, submissive wife worrying her life away on the home front. It’s the film’s best performance, steamrolling over the Emperor with gripping psychosexual prowess. Phoenix, meanwhile, never feels like he entirely sinks into the depths of his role. Phoenix is always an immensely watchable actor, and the performance certainly isn’t poor. Rather, it feels, much like the rest of Napoleon, like it’s holding the character at arm’s length. It’s probably fair to say that psychological depth has never been Scott’s greatest strength – it’s there in Blade Runner, Alien, and certainly The Duellists, but few would go to a Scott film seeking ruminations on the uncertain terrain of the mind – and while Napoleon makes a decent crack at exploring the mama’s boy complex that drove Napoleon’s ambition, it never fully convinces.
Likewise, Scott, alongside his writer David Scarpa, falter in the laying out of this story. The great trap of the biopic is the feeling that one needs to cram every major aspect of a figure’s life into the space of a few hours in the cinema. Napoleon ramps this approach up to eleven. It’s compulsively watchable, rumbling merrily from one exquisitely photographed and production designed location to another – but as the hours wear on, the gaps in connective tissue begin to show. This isn’t to suggest that Napoleon isn’t a focussed film – indeed, rarely for an historical epic, the film strays only occasionally beyond the perspective of Napoleon and Josephine at all. This means virtually no other actors in the film really register, the only exception being the spectacular Rupert Everett, delightfully hissable in a brief but pivotal role toward the end of the film. Anachronisms abound in the dialogue, lending credence to the idea of this film as an interpretation of the life of Napoleon through the lens of pop cinema – ‘you think you’re so great because you have boats!’, whinges Napoleon during a confrontation with British aggressors. Scott quite often will venture down the path of least resistance – but you’ll be having such a great time that you’ve forgotten your quibbles by the time you reach your destination. It doesn’t make for the most accomplished work, but damn if it isn’t meaty, silly fun.
Where Scott, and Napoleon, really get the chance to let loose are in the film’s enormous battle sequences. From an early, night-time assault on the walls of Toulon to the disastrous battle of Waterloo, the nail in Napoleon’s coffin, Scott consistently finds ways into the action that connect with efficient, thumping brutality. Best is the nightmarish, frozen terror that is the Battle of Austerlitz, which may rank as one of Scott’s finest moments. Visually, it’s second to none – one feels the chill of the dead of winter in the way the snow falls, the way the men shiver and shake. The violence is shocking and extensive, the lensing, sound design and editing operating in sharp lockstep. It evokes a swirling, hypnotic feeling of slowly escalating horror, punctuated by the stony, almost casual expression Phoenix maintains throughout. It is these giant sequences that linger in the mind after the credits roll, and which practically demand one watch Napoleon on the biggest screen they can find. Napoleon is hardly the finest film of the year, but watching it made me long for the return of the historical swords-and-sandals epic – your Ben-Hurs; your Lawrence of Arabias; hell, even your Troys. When in the hands of an old master like Scott, these kinds of films brush up against the essence of great cinema – they become genuinely transportative. One imagines, if it is released, that the four-hour cut of Napoleon may just elevate this film that bit closer to greatness too.
Napoleon in cinemas now.
Movie title: Napoleon (dir. Ridley Scott)
Movie description: It feels a little like fate that veteran filmmaker Ridley Scott would one day make a film about the life and conquests of Napoleon Bonaparte. Now eighty-five, his latest film thrums with the energy and bombast of a much younger filmmaker; if it skimps on the depth, it certainly has a great time (and looks good) doing so.
Date published: November 24, 2023
Country: United Kingdom
Author: David Scarpa
Director(s): Ridley Scott
Actor(s): Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Rupert Everett, Tahar Rahim
Genre: Action, Adventure, Biography