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.)

Change a Big Issue vendor’s life this Christmas by purchasing a Winter Support Kit. You’ll receive four copies of the magazine and create a brighter future for our vendors through Christmas and beyond.

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

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

Support your local Big Issue vendor

If you can’t get to your local vendor every week, subscribing directly to them online is the best way to support your vendor. Your chosen vendor will receive 50% of the profit from each copy and the rest is invested back into our work to create opportunities for people affected by poverty.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
'Who's your favourite Spider-Man?': Why the future of Spidey looks thwipping exciting
Film

'Who's your favourite Spider-Man?': Why the future of Spidey looks thwipping exciting

How chicken factory musical Chuck Chuck Baby became a love letter to working-class women
Louise Brealey in Chuck Chuck Baby
Film

How chicken factory musical Chuck Chuck Baby became a love letter to working-class women

Why watching the news can be like watching a horror film – literally
Film

Why watching the news can be like watching a horror film – literally

Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation is an eerie prediction of our surveillance age
Film

Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation is an eerie prediction of our surveillance age

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know

Support our vendors with a subscription

For each subscription to the magazine, we’ll provide a vendor with a reusable water bottle, making it easier for them to access cold water on hot days.