THREE AND A HALF STARS A biopic about one of France's most famous leaders and serial war mongers.
PERIOD DRAMA UK English #NAPOLEON
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby
First things first, NAPOLEON is not a documentary. Napoleon did not fire canons at the Egyptian pyramids, nor did he witness the beheading of Marie Antoinette. He didn’t have an American accent either, but we’ll get to that later. He did, however, command the French military to some astounding wins and resounding defeats. He did become Emperor, twice, and was banished to island prisons, twice. He also had one of history’s most celebrated love affairs with the divorced mother of two, Josephine Beauharnais who, like himself, was something of an outsider. It’s their fraught love affair that is the beating heart of this epic film.
There are echoes of GLADIATOR in the scale, ambition and success of Ridley Scott’s always compelling, occasionally awe-inspiring endeavour. As with his Roman epic, he carries us on a soaring journey that calls on Hollywood’s Golden era for its framework while investing the storytelling with a contemporary sensibility. NAPOLEON is also chock full of his signature hazy, smokey scenes, which we’ll also get to later. The results are exceedingly watchable.
Linear in its approach, NAPOLEON kicks off with the revolution and a young army officer who seizes his destiny. It ends with an ex-Emperor whose been exiled to an island, again, where he’ll live out his days consoling himself with his hard-won reputation. In between he does battle with the government, with Austria, with Egypt, with Russia (famously) and at Waterloo (very famously). Throughout he battles the love of his life; a woman whose loyalty he can’t control, a woman without whom he cannot live. And yet he must.
If thwarted love is its beating heart, hubris is the film’s backbone. It gives Scott and his star, Joaquin Phoenix, a position on which to hang their Napoleon. The latter serves up his distant, quirky, often polarising performance which serves this version of the warrior-king well. His native accent is distracting at first, but comes to define his character’s ‘otherness’ for Napoleon is not entirely a son of France, something no one completely forgets.
Despite a clichéd, troop-rousing speech on horseback, neither Phoenix nor Scott are offering a romanticised, Mel Gibson version of history but something much more original. It goes some way to explaining Napoleon’s military ability and his emotional motivations. He truly believes there’s nothing he can’t conquer which, by the time he becomes Emperor, might well be true. Yet we all know Waterloo is calling, and it makes fascinating viewing.
Plus there’s Josephine (a brilliant Vanessa Kirby - THE CROWN), another who simply won’t bend to his will. Their time together presents a respite from the mighty battle scenes but once again, they’re not the stuff of corset dramas. Their first meeting in which she brazenly parts her legs to offer him all there is to be had, is a case in point. These scenes would bury lesser actors (or directors). Here the the film springs alive.
They’re a terrific counterpoint to the many battles which despite a basic familiarity have a stirring originality about them. Yes it’s all guns and cannons, bayonets and blood but they have a viscosity rarely seen since computer graphics smothered war films two decades ago. Here, when a foot gets torn off, a horse is rendered in two or a knife slices into a jaw, it looks, feels, shockingly real. Thankfully such moments are kept to a minimum, though they’re more distressing for their brevity.
And so Scott sets a cracking pace as he attempts to to squash all this action and emotion into a generous two hours runtime. He needs to if he wants to maintain our interest in one of Europe’s more motivated war mongers. It was a task that defeated Stanley Kubrick and many more before him, but one Scott passes even if it often feels like he’s ticking off events in a fury to get to the end.
NAPOLEON is not a documentary, but in so far as ‘based on true events’ movies go, it’s a cracker. Scott has found the right mix of fact and fiction, and fictionalised fact, to keep our interest sparking. The balance of epic battle scenes and intimate romance gives him the narrative beats that stop a familiar story turning into an exercise in cliché.
Yes there’s a wearying repetition that starts to form but they were called the Napoleonic Wars (plural) for a reason (France grew sick of him too, that’s why they stuck their Emperor on an island). Yes we’ve seen Phoenix offer variations on this performance and we’ve certainly seen Scott make this kind of epic before. And yes, for better or worse, he’s still in love with hazy, smoke scenes. In this light the film is less than the sum of its parts, but Scott makes sure the parts are thrilling before ushering us to the exit lest we too grow restless of Napoleon’s antics, hubris and heart.