Numerous times in Napoleonthe fog settles over wintry landscapes, gently evoking visual echoes The Duelists, the 1977 debut film set in the same era that put Ridley Scott on the map. Then there are powerful, large-scale war scenes more typical of the veteran director’s later work, particularly the Battle of Austerlitz, where cannon fire from Bonaparte’s army plunges Austrian and Russian troops to an icy death in a frozen lake whose water is stained Blood. But for all its power and atmosphere and robustly choreographed fights, it’s a sprawling historical tapestry that’s too sprawling to remain compelling, especially when the focus moves away from the central couple.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the title role is as eccentric as any the moody actor has ever given, even if his tics don’t always seem entirely rooted in character. But when it’s on screen with Vanessa Kirby as Josephine, the fallen aristocrat restored to her feet by her marriage to Napoleon and then cast aside when she failed to produce an heir, the nearly three-hour historical epic is at its most alive .


The end result More ambitious than commitment.

Release date: Wednesday, November 23rd
Pour: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Mark Bonnar, Rupert Everett, Youssef Kerkour, Ian McNeice, Ben Miles, Paul Rhys, Ludivine Sagnier, Edouard Philipponnat, Matthew Needham
director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: David Scarpa
Rated R, 2 hours 38 minutes

Abel Gance’s 1927 French silent film, also titled Napoleon, is the most famous film portrayal of the historical figure. It took five and a half hours to follow the protagonist from his formative childhood years through the early upheavals of the Wars of Independence to his end in Italy, leaving the 26-year-old military leader filled with visions of future glory on the battlefield.

Perhaps picking up where Stanley Kubrick left off in his unrealized attempt to make a Napoleon film, Scott aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the subject’s entire military career. But despite the near-constant din of infantry battles, sneak attacks, skirmishes and thunderous carnage, Napoleon Narratively it often feels sluggish, boring and flat.

David Scarpa’s screenplay begins in 1793 with the guillotining of Marie Antoinette and the unrest in France, providing Napoleon with the opportunity to make a name for himself as a gifted military strategist. He succeeds in this at the siege of Toulon, where he leads his troops to surprise the Anglo-Saxon fleet, secure the harbor and thus recapture the city for the Republic.

The film progresses through a timeline that will be familiar to history students, although probably not entirely clear to anyone looking for a crash course here – the fall of Robespierre; the end of the Reign of Terror; the conquest of Egypt; the coup of 1799, which overthrew the existing French system of government; Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804; the decisive Battle of Austerlitz; the failed attempts to make peace with England and forge alliances with Prussia and Austria; the French invasion of Russia with its heavy losses; Napoleon’s abdication and initial exile to the Mediterranean island of Elba; his return to lead France in a humiliating defeat by England; and his final exile to the British-controlled island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.

That’s a lot for any audience to digest in a single sitting, and while Scott can be commended for his ambition, neither he nor Scarpa manage to integrate these many storylines into a flowing narrative.

The common thread is Napoleon’s relationship with Josephine, whom he met at a survival ball in newly liberated Paris and whom he married two years later. For all his self-assurance during military maneuvers, Napoleon recognizes from the start that Josephine is his equal or perhaps even superior. And when he returns from Egypt outraged at having been ridiculed in the press for her infidelity, Josephine rebuffs his attempts to shame her: “You are nothing without me.”

This unusual dynamic between one of the most powerful men in the world and a spouse who was not long ago in prison might have been enough Napoleon A steadier pulse would have been given if the scenes together had been given room to breathe and develop. But Scott is always too eager to get back into the field, where Napoleon’s letters home to Josephine must keep the thread going.

Despite frequent sex attacks, which Phoenix amusingly plays like a farm animal in heat, Josephine’s stomach remains empty. But at the dinner table, she blithely shifts the blame onto her husband and calls him fat. In one of the many touches of gonzo humor that enliven Phoenix’s performance, he replies, “Fate brought me here! Fate brought me this lamb chop!” The unwillingness to acknowledge defeat of any kind, be it in the Marriage, or in the military, is a key feature of the characterization, making it both funny and pathetic when Napoleon shouts, “We win!” on a battlefield littered with the corpses of his infantry.

But somehow none of this adds up to a comprehensive portrait of one of the most ambitious men in history; Sometimes I wondered if Phoenix was still in the role of Beau is scared. Kirby’s sly wit, cat-eyed sensuality, and innate regality make Josephine a more intriguing character and certainly make Napoleon’s addiction to her understandable. But it should be really depressing that he is being manipulated by his mother and other advisors into divorcing her and fathering an heir elsewhere, even as he remains devoted to his ex-wife with a love that lasts even after her death stops.

The film’s largest extended stage play is the Battle of Waterloo, where the English, led by Rupert Everett, amuse the scene like a sinister pantomime Ponce as the Duke of Wellington. (This is not a film in which the supporting cast generally makes much of an impression.) The battles themselves are expertly orchestrated, with Napoleon failing to foresee the devastating impact of a frontal attack by the British and a flank attack by the Prussians. But the film’s battles are more impressive in their scale than their emotional impact, even with the imaginative use of period music and a sweeping score by Martin Phipps. In addition, many of the images by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski appear disappointingly gloomy in widescreen format.

Even after this final defeat, Napoleon maintains his disdain for self-blame and blames the men under his command for their failure to carry out his orders correctly. “The hardest thing in life is accepting the failures of others.” There is a potentially fascinating study in leadership deception in this statement, but somehow it never comes together to form a satisfactory portrait here.

Full credits

Production company: Scott Free
Distributor: Columbia, Apple TV+
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Mark Bonnar, Rupert Everett, Youssef Kerkour, Ian McNeice, Ben Miles, Paul Rhys, Ludivine Sagnier, Edouard Philipponnat, Matthew Needham
Directed by Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: David Scarpa
Producers: Ridley Scott, Kevin J. Walsh, Mark Huffam, Joaquin Phoenix
Executive Producers: Raymond Kirk, Aidan Elliott, Michael Pruss
Cameraman: Dariusz Wolski
Production Designer: Arthur Max
Costume Designer: Janty Yates, Dave Crossman
Music: Martin Phipps
Editors: Claire Simpson, Sam Restivo
Visual effects supervisors: Charley Henley, Henry Badgett, Luc-Ewen Martin-Fenouillet, Simone Coco
Special Effects Supervisor: Neil Corbould
Cast: Kate Rhodes James
Rated R, 2 hours 38 minutes

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