Ridley Scott treats battlefields as open canvases upon which to paint monumental scenes of heroism and spinelessness, glory and disgrace, sacrifice and selfishness. No contemporary director has staged them with the verve he’s brought to Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, Exodus: Gods and Monsters, and now Napoleon, his muscular historical epic about the rise and fall of the iconic French emperor.
Staging his color-coded melees with a step-by-step lucidity that provides both macro views of strategic maneuvers and movements and micro snapshots of gallantry, foolishness, and pain, Scott imagines Napoleon’s campaigns as rousing expressions of his protagonist’s grand ambitions and reckless arrogance, as well as thrilling showstoppers that put his big-screen competition to shame. Exhibiting a flair for old-school clashes and carnage that’s unmitigated by his (canny) use of CGI to expand the scope and scale of his tableaus, he’s modern cinema’s maestro of mass warfare.
Napoleon (in theaters Nov. 22) is a testament to Scott’s peerless directorial skill at bringing traditional combat to blistering life. It’s also, however, a sturdy bio-drama led by a commanding Joaquin Phoenix as the man who sparked so many wars that they named them after him. Written by Scott’s All the Money in the World collaborator David Scarpa, the film envisions Napoleon as a complex mix of the imposing and the absurd, his dreams of conquest—and single-minded ability to make them a reality—matched by his folly and awkwardness.
Played by Phoenix with an intensity that only heightens the humor of his more petulant pronouncements and gaffes, this Napoleon has no self-awareness because, it seems, he thinks it unnecessary to consider himself in anything other than glowing (if not borderline divine) terms. The results of that egomania are twofold: fearsomely intimidating power and pitiful clownishness, the latter epitomized by his hilarious declaration about the British, “You think you’re so great because you have BOATS!?”
It’s no small feat that Phoenix embodies Napoleon as a formidable giant and a fool whose contradictions feel like opposite sides of the same coin. Both qualities are evident from the beginning of Napoleon, when the then-artillery commander leads his French forces to success at the 1793 Siege of Toulon, his nervous facial trembles as strong as the courage he displays by subsequently racing into the fray, scaling the British-controlled harbor’s walls and engaging the enemy with his sword. This victory allows Napoleon to rise up the ranks and bolsters his confidence, and it makes him well positioned when the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror becomes untenable to the country’s citizenry and he comes to look like an ideal middle-ground option between the cruel rebels who’ve overthrown the monarchy and the oppressive royalists who want to reestablish the status quo.
Napoleon covers various major episodes along the Napoleon timeline but doesn’t lavish undue attention on political shifts and machinations; its focus, throughout, is on its protagonist’s military endeavors and private life with Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), a widow whose first husband was executed during the Reign of Terror and who in swift order becomes his wife. Joséphine sees in her new husband a tyrant to respect and fear, as well as a weak-kneed boy she can wrap around her finger, and her extramarital affairs are like daggers through his heart. Napoleon responds to them with blustery fury and childish sulking, and in the scene that defines their dynamic, Napoleon—upon confronting her about a dalliance that has become public thanks to British newspapers publishing his love letters from the front—demands that she pledge her love and loyalty to him (“You are nothing without me!”), only to have her turn around and compel him to do the same.
Napoleon is routinely made a chump by Joséphine and, also, by Napoleon, as when he screws his spouse like a spastic jackrabbit and, later, testily announces during a discussion about divorce—instigated by his wife’s inability to bear him an heir—“Destiny has brought me this lamb chop!” Scott captures the underlying ridiculousness of megalomania without ignoring its allure, power, and danger, and that balancing act is ably maintained as he details Napoleon’s ascent to emperor, fall from the throne thanks to his catastrophic mistakes in Russia, exile on Elba, and return to France to spearhead a clash with a coalition of European enemies at Waterloo that forever seals his fate.
Scott ignores most of the social reforms that Napoleon instituted but he captures a sense of his relentless drive, and in a fantastic Egypt scene in which he stands on a box to look straight into the eyes of an ancient mummy, the director nods to the sovereign’s famously short stature and—in the ensuing sight of him leaning into the mummy’s face to “hear” what mysteries he has to impart—his desire to confer with, and be the equal of, the titans of old.
With many of its interiors shot by Barry Lyndon-esque candlelight in an apparent tribute to Stanley Kubrick (and an allusion to the late director’s unrealized dream of making his own Napoleon epic), Napoleon hits the big notes yet cares little for diligent historical detail; between Napoleon’s habit of making outrageous statements, and the fact that Phoenix is far too old for the role (at least in the early going), Scott favors stirring ostentatiousness over pinpoint accuracy.
This Napoleon is a king whose greatest strength and weakness is his inability to see, or even conceive of, his failings, and that shortcoming turns him into the king of the cuckolds and facilitates his downfall, which culminates with his de facto imprisonment on Saint Helena, where he died at the age of 51 on May 5, 1821. The film at once admires and mocks, and that duality lends it a complexity that extends to its signature set pieces, all furious bravery and despicable cowardice, whether it’s in the muck with the millions of soldiers that perished under Napoleon’s command, or by the ruler’s side as he orders those individuals to fight—and joins them, at least until Waterloo, where he proves the point made by his adversary Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett), that officers have better things to do than die.
Ultimately, it’s Wellington who has the final word on Napoleon, musing (upon seeing him charge into battle), “He can’t help himself.” Amusing, exciting and altogether gargantuan, Napoleon is a portrait of a goliath propelled by unruly impulses, and the legendary triumphs and tragedies they begat.
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