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.
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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.