Film

Napoleon review – a man at war with the world and himself

How does a relatively lowly Corsica-born artilleryman become all-powerful emperor of France?

joaquin phoenix as Napoleon

Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon. Image: Apple

A stubborn megalomaniac with a gift for marshalling vast armies refuses to rest on his impressive laurels, preferring to push on towards that next, possibly even greater triumph. But enough about Sir Ridley Scott. As he prepares to turn 86, the seemingly indefatigable filmmaker is probably sparking up another fat cigar to celebrate having succeeded where Charlie Chaplin (in the 1930s) and Stanley Kubrick (in the late 1960s) failed.

All these auteurs imagined a bold, brassy biopic of one of history’s greatest military strategists and/or inveterate warmongers. But only Scott’s Napoleon has made it all the way to the actual screen. His handsomely staged two-and-a-half-hour epic mixes thumping scenes of warfare with a dysfunctional relationship drama to often slightly queasy effect. (If it hurtles through the bullet points of Napoleon’s life – a bit “Liberté, égalité, Wikipedia entrée” – Scott apparently has a four-hour extended cut locked and loaded.)

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This version of Bonaparte is a man at war with the world and often himself. To that end, Scott has recruited his Gladiator villain Joaquin Phoenix, no stranger to playing petulant schemers who often seem uncomfortable in their own skin. Boney’s childhood is skipped entirely; after some guillotine-heavy opening credits, we meet him as a 24-year-old French army soldier tasked with ousting occupying British forces from the port of Toulon.

How does a relatively lowly Corsica-born artilleryman become all-powerful emperor of France? Apparently it takes both cannons and balls, and Scott peppers this formative battle with both. Napoleon’s plan hinges on a mortar attack on Toulon’s fort, and once he quells his combat jitters he is scampering up the siege ladder with sabre drawn. The result is a resounding victory and a promotion. What next? Another battle, and a career ladder to climb.

Soon he is being asked to assist with urban pacification on the unruly streets of Paris (again, he turns to cannons). But he has another target in his sights: the aristocratic widow Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), rocking a post-prison pixie cut. Napoleon is smitten, and after her recent incarceration Joséphine realises the value of such an influential ally.

Their relationship becomes the longest-running battle in a film not short on them. It is a symbiotic but volatile pas de deux where one of Kirby’s most appealing talents as an actor – the sense that at any moment her husky voice could bubble up into teasing laughter – becomes a liability. Boney does not like to be mocked.

With its central dynamic in place, Scott toggles between far-flung campaigns and domestic disputes. Boney taking a pot-shot at the pyramids, a scene that has got historians riled up, is played as little more than a sight gag.

Far more involved is the wintry battle of Austerlitz in 1805, where Napoleon routed Russian and Austrian forces via a series of exhilarating tactical gambits. Shooting the action predominantly from the high ground, Scott makes a persuasive case for Napoleon’s military mastery even as the butcher’s bill ticks up into the thousands.

The staging is just as elaborate and carefully considered on the home front, even as the cracks begin to show. An heir remains elusive. A fruitless foray into Russia does not help. But some of Napoleon’s greatest leaps and falls – his marriage, his coronation, his divorce, his abdication – come at the stroke of a pen. In these quieter moments, Scott understands that the ringing of a quill hurriedly dipped into an inkwell is as significant as a cannon fusillade.

Napoleon's army on the march
Image: Apple

When the fateful battle of Waterloo looms, the film seems to curdle, perhaps deliberately. Joséphine is no longer in the picture and with the world massed against him, Napoleon gloomily picks his biggest fight yet. On a sodden, overcast battlefield, repeated waves of infantry and cavalry are hectored into action while heavy artillery fire periodically vaporises advancing troops.

As the conflict grinds on, any sense of martial glory or potential tactical ingenuity leaches away into the mire. It all feels gruelling and wasteful rather than stirring, although Rupert Everett adds a little gentlemen’s relish as the bluff, booming Duke of Wellington.

There is still the purgatorial coda of exile in St Helena but Phoenix’s brittle Napoleon seems to innately realise that whatever he has achieved in the last three decades, this is his de facto end. When he belatedly joins the fray on horseback, he does so on slightly stiff autopilot, perhaps realising he couldn’t escape if he wanted to.

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic.

Napoleon is in cinemas now

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