An epic that details the checkered rise and fall of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his relentless journey to power through the prism of his addictive, volatile relationship with his wife, Josephine.
Director Ridley Scott delivers the sort of cinematic spectacle I’ve come to expect from him in “Napoleon.” What caught me off guard were its moments of high comedy, the barbed political commentary it contains and the fact that it proves to be a cautionary tale for our times. The filmmaker has made no bones about the fact that historical accuracy is of little concern to him here, as he takes the Little Corporal’s life and shapes it to his own narrative needs. To be sure, the seminal events and significant battles are here. However, it’s the way in which the titular emperor is portrayed that proves daring, seen here as buffoonish, grandiose, deluded and egotistical, all the while played by Joaquin Phoenix as stoic and disinterested, appearing through much of the early going as it he’d just waken from a nap, longing to return to his slumber rather than dictate the future of France.
Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa waste little time, starting with the execution of Marie Antoinette and informing us that Napoleon is an officer looking to advance through the ranks of the French Army. He gets his opportunity when he liberates the city of Toulan in 1793. Promoted from captain to general for his efforts, his next invasion is that of high society where he crosses paths with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), a widowed mother having lost her husband, a military officer, in the revolution. Realizing Napoleon’s star is on the rise, she subtly seduces him, hitches her wagon to his and embarks on a passionate, destructive relationship with the general that ultimately provides them with more grief than pleasure.
These two plotlines are intertwined throughout, Scott alternating between depictions of Napoleon’s great military campaigns – his invasion of Egypt, the Battle of Austerlitz, the disastrous Russian war – with scenes of he and Josephine. They share occasional moments of bliss, though he spends more time raging over her infidelities and ultimately her seeming inability to provide him with a son. The necessity of his needing an heir becomes all the more pressing after he declares and crowns himself Emperor of France.
How accurate all of this is historically, is not for me to say. At just over two and a half hours, the highlights of Napoleon’s life are touched upon, few developed completely, liberties taken throughout. A four-hour cut of the film, to premiere on Apple TV+, will likely fill in some of the obvious gaps and hopefully flesh out some of the relationships with the Little Corporal and his peers.
However, Scott and, most viewers, are not concerned about historical minutiae. Most come for the spectacle the director has become known for staging and he doesn’t disappoint. While Waterloo is a bit staid in its execution, moments during the Siege of Toulan are arresting, while the highlight is the climactic moment during the Battle of Austerlitz, a series of elaborately stage set pieces that underscore the man’s tactical brilliance, while driving home the horror of war.
Scott pulls no punches as to the brutality of the times, whether it be on the battlefield or the streets of Paris. The social unrest provides the opportunity for a man of Napoleon’s nature to come to power, the masses hungry for a reactionary, a man able to exploit the fears of the populace and rise to prominence catering to their basest instincts.
Phoenix’s performance in the title role is carefully calculated, a deceptive turn in which he initially seems to be channeling Buster Keaton, disengaged from all that’s swirling about him. Only later does it dawn on the audience that his portrayal is based on Abraham Lincoln’s advice of it being “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.’ Ultimately, the actor reveals his and Scott’s intention, Phoenix’s outsized, self-aware performance emerging in high comic moments. A food fight between him and Josephine, his waxing philosophically about fate and a lamb chop that has crossed his path and his furious rutting with his lover reveal him to be a self-centered clown, intent on maintaining power at whatever cost.
During a final crawl, Scott reveals that cost as having been quite high for the French populace, a total of over three million soldiers having lost their lives due to his continued follies. The implication is that a constant need for validation is what drove him, that his insecurities plagued him, France and its citizens just so much collateral damage in his efforts to assuage his ego. I’m sure that any correlation between “Napoleon” and current events is strictly coincidental.