Film review: Napoleon

Joaquin Phoenix puts on a big hat and emerges victorious as Napoleon in Ridley Scott’s huge, rollicking biopic of the French emperor…

Film review: Napoleon
Nick Ruskell

Napoleon Bonaparte didn’t actually watch Marie Antoinette having her head chopped off. Nor did he damage the pyramids with cannon fire on his Egypt campaign. He did not – as the film’s slogan so proudly boasts – come from nothing, being the son of an aristo. At Austerlitz in 1805, his greatest day at the office as a military commander, the results of which essentially ended the Holy Roman Empire, his victory wasn’t entirely locked in by tricking his opponents onto a frozen lake and firing cannonballs through it like a more successful Wile E. Coyote. He didn’t even speak in English with an American accent.

To all such criticisms, director Ridley Scott has said, “Bollocks.” Actually what he really replied was, “Get a life,” but in the spirit of his sprawling biopic of France’s most famous Frenchman, splendor, vibe and storytelling take a front seat over detail and accurate truths. Ken Burns this is not.

Instead, Napoleon is a telling of the life of Le Petit Caporal via his biggest moments, in thrall more to his impressive reputation and grandeur of his legend than sticking strictly to pure history. It is all the more fun for it, even if it will sow seeds of mistruth among people who get their education from films. To them: read a book. To everyone else: here’s two and a half hours of Joaquin Phoenix having a whale of a time summoning the most supreme arrogance on and off the battlefield. It's packed with epically-realised set-pieces and war, hilariously and intentionally bad bodice-ripping rumpo in which Napoleon doesn’t even last long enough for bodices to get ripped, action movie body counts, and the funniest in-movie meme reference since Jared Leto’s Joker intoned, “We live in a society.”

This is all herded together through the story of the relationship between Napoleon and his wife, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), and his eternally disappointing desire for her to give him an heir. It allows Phoenix to bring out a level of flair in his character, giving him a rakishness to sit alongside the shots of him looking mighty and impressive in front of his army. It also allows his frustrations and more awkward personality to come out, his petulance and brooding stroppiness. “Destiny has brought me to this pork chop!” he erupts at his wife during one dinner table argument, on par with his whining that the British "think you're so great because you have boats!" In Josephine, meanwhile, there’s a seductive depth, both as a woman greatly in love (even with the whoopsie of an affair while her beau's away on campaign) as well as someone who can side-eye and disarm the Emperor without being blown to smithereens for it.

Talking of which, there’s loads of it. In the first 15 minutes, Napoleon’s horse is torn through by a cannonball and carrion goes everywhere. Royalists are bloodily obliterated in the street by heavy artillery. During Austerlitz, the sight of men falling to their death in icy waters becomes weirdly compelling, as is the bit during the doomed winter Russian campaign where soldiers were so hungry they killed and ate their steeds.

Waterloo, meanwhile – which is announced so knowingly Phoenix may as well look into the camera and say he couldn’t escape if he wanted to – is as huge as it is wonderfully scenery-chewing. This is helped immensely by Rupert Everett gleefully playing the Duke Of Wellington as an even bigger arsehole than Stephen Fry did in Blackadder. Watching Napoleon realise he has well and truly stacked it as hooves, shot, steel and fists fly between sides feels disastrous, even when you already know he loses.

These are the parts Napoleon is all about. Detail is for the scholars. This is a movie that proudly prints the legend, bringing to life the stories of great victory, enormous power, very French romance and big hats with all the pomp and vigour it can muster. It doesn’t even matter that he seems to bounce from one great campaign to the next with only the loosest of explanation as to what he’s doing or how he got there. Meanwhile, Phoenix’s take on his role is as impressive as his subject. He knows when to be a brilliant tactician, when to allow his emotions and love for his wife, his country and his desire to serve melt his frequently grumpy exterior, and when to simply be a childish, sulking arse.

Many have, ahem, met their Waterloo trying to put Napoleon on film. Even the late Stanley Kubrick gave up. And Scott’s telling here hasn’t escaped criticism already, both for its vague relationship with reality and, among the French, for the more negative, cartoonish depictions of their top man. It isn’t perfect, but as a thrilling, massive piece of cinema, it tackles this most complex, vast, influential and filled life and presents it as an action-packed romp. For this, Napoleon wins the day.

Verdict: 4/5

Napoleon is released on November 22

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