Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

"Even at its most epic there's something lacklustre about it all, as if the whole thing were being printed in ink-saving mode."

Reviewing House Of Gucci, I made a comparison between it, The Last Duel and Shakespeare's plays. After Napoleon, its closing credits words "inspired by actual events," I find those similarities again, not least with the vexed question of historical accuracy. Those include, flag fans, the vexillogical, but there are plenty of other issues that force one to ask questions about standards.

Ridley Scott is no stranger to historical dramas, period films. Napoleon makes it a dozen I think, returning him to the era of his debut feature The Duellists. The debts that owes to Kubrick are numerous, and the story of the Corsican Emperor of France is one that the auteur perfectionist never got to screen himself. Kubrick's Napoleon is one of those unmade projects that has attracted devotees in potentia, as with Jodorowsky's Dune. Scott's Napoleon seems to share epic intent but, even with the amount of canvas, gives cold comfort.

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There's a wordy prologue, text that serves as cutout with the red white and blue of the tricolore behind. That's the brightest those colours will be, the contrast between the white r- and the rest of -evolution in bloody red the strongest it will seem. There's an almost continuous and heavy handed grading of colour. At one point a uniform seen through a window seems a flash of brightness but it might genuinely by a consequence of the overwhelming greyness of the interior from which we look out. Dariusz Wolski has lensed nine features for Scott, at least as many for short and television projects. Even at its most epic there's something lacklustre about it all, as if the whole thing were being printed in ink-saving mode.

That despite the signing of documents being a frequent element of the action. Almost as much as the battles, some of which scarcely count as such. The ahistorical targeting of the pyramids is all we get of one conflict, the liberties taken with Austerlitz and Waterloo (more particularly the Mont Saint-Jean escarpment) are enough to make anyone who's even glanced at an Osprey Publishing title wince. That's after he's described as a "gunnery officer" which is more properly a naval rank. He was an artilleryman, and if the distinction between the two matters to you then you too will be irked. There's a lengthy, even leaden textual coda that mentions Napoleon's "61 battles" and the casualties of the larger. Elsewhere his record usually includes the win/loss figure. Depending on how you slice it it's 70 wins of 81, or 53 of 60.

There are huge elisions. Most of us would probably want a note of when we'd made our brother the Emperor of Spain. We see him turn troops to his side but there's little of the reforms that put a field marshal's baton in every knapsack and a fondness for Napoleon in every heart. There's plenty of Josephine, but that's another place where history has served as at best inspiration rather than source. To make the story of Napoleon one bound up in the psychosexual is fair enough, but one still finds oneself asking "Why?" What benefit is there of telling this story in this way?

At two and a half hours one wonders what else could have been left out. There's an uncertainty of perspective, I'll grant, but it doesn't feel as definite as the twin tracks of Oppenheimer or the three perspectives of The Last Duel. If there's invention in the storytelling it is in detail conjured wholecloth, rather than in the fit or the cut or the tailoring. If there's a sense of the character of Napoleon it is hidden behind an upturned collar.

Joaquin Phoenix is stiff-necked and often grimacing, he shouts a bit (there's a good line about boats) and he's got the market covered in sweaty panic but that never feels sensible. There are choices in his performance that recall the mannered molar-retention of Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers Of The Flower Moon. I can't think of many roles where Phoenix has used so little of his range. This isn't a one-note performance, but even were Napoleon not famously ebullient, if not brutish, this would seem in contrast sparse and hunched. If anything, to go back to the theme of Shakespeare, this feels like Richard III. Is he the villain in his own story?

There's a point where scholars of history might be thinking "Just like Henry VIII!" but patronage can be a funny thing. You'll learn who is important to the story sometimes because there's a title on the screen that gives their name and position. Elsewhere there's voiceover, letters read by their authors. I don't know how I feel about that. Scott's record with them is hardly cutting edge. There's some moments where what might be narration serves ably for scene transitions but for others we bleach to white, as if a page is being turned. The neatest use of this is when we see the first consul dictating a letter, but the fact that we see him shaving himself as he does so seems to indicate barbarism, if not also illiteracy.

Vanessa Kirby is 14 years younger than Phoenix, playing Josephine who was six years older than Napoleon. Their chemistry reminded me more of that of Blunt and Murphy in Oppenheimer than the more equivalently complex relationships of The Favourite. While the film opens with an execution by guillotine, including some very fresh lettuce being thrown from the crowd, it never seems pressing as to how close France's aristocracy came to losing their heads (in either sense).

Around them a litany of somewhat familiar faces, including a cavalcade of "that guys" and comedians. Rupert Everett's Duke of Wellington is as flinty as any statue, though his reprimand to a rifleman relies on a weird mixture of anachronism and general conduct. Napoleon leads charges himself. That might have been understandable at Toulon, but less so even at the ranks it skips in his ostensibly battlefield promotion. I think that in the massed ranks there's been digital trickery to reproduce stands of men. Even the most disciplined seem a bit ragged, as much haste as copy and paste. The guns often fall silent and are rarely sounded in unison, mass battle before mass production was still more than a morass. There's sometimes a sense of maneuver, of tactic, but too often it's buried beneath gore and spectacle.

In the battles the choices of palette become even more troublesome. The blue is sometimes so rebalanced that it appears the as yet un-unified Italy has taken the field rather than La Belle France. I'm still not sure if a flag flying outside a tent occupied by Miles Jupp and Edouard Philipponnat at The Battle of the Three Emperors is that of Austria, perhaps inverted, or Ukraine in place of Russia. I could not tell the blue from the black. It's much the same as those other history films of Scott's. It must be an aesthetic choice, he's filmed set in this era before but the picture he shot nearly 50 years ago had more colour to it. It's made worse with the by now stereotypical locative filters, and further by the way that night is shot. At my most charitable there are moments, especially in the pomp of the coronation, that seem almost painterly. The colours are still missing but there is a sense of grandeur, albeit experiencing some degree of decay. It would be easier to put a finger on tarnish or smoke or grime. If Scott weren't so active I'd wonder if this obfuscation by oxidation was because he was rusty.

It's penned by David Scarpa, who wrote Scott's All The Money In The World from the book by John Pearson. He'd previously adapted The Day The Earth Stood Still and his only other film credit was d├ębut The Last Castle. That's a mixed record at best, and only one original in there. I shan't do more than mention his work as 'co-showrunner' on TV Philip K Dick adaptation The Man In The High Castle. The elements here don't fill me with confidence for forthcoming projects, including a version of Cleopatra to be helmed by Denis Villeneuve.

Cleopatra leads to another comparison - Napoleon and Josephine was a torrid relationship, bound up in all manner of affairs of state and with implications on the world stage. It wouldn't be unfair to compare them to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and in Phoenix's performance there are maybe echoes of the cynicism and softness Burton brought to The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Plenty of other directors have explored the contrast between brutes and beauties, from You Were Never Really Here to The Master to A Star Is Born. It's not the heart of the film though, indeed I'm not sure anything is. This is almost a succession of vignettes, connected at times by little more than proximity.

It's at that there's perhaps the last similarity to the history plays, because if you don't know the story already I don't know how well you'll be have been told it by the film. There are moments of levity, including a handful of references I don't think I'm imagining. One charge zooms up and above, filling the whole cinema even though it's black shapes on a white background, even on a premium format like SuperScreen. I'm almost certain that Martin Phipps' score or the melange of other songs including Haydn, Purcell, and Piaf goes into the same tones as Wendy Carlos' work for A Clockwork Orange. In another, an eminent politician is interrupted during his 'succulent' breakfast, I was minded of democracy manifest. At another the line "he is vain" is made funnier by context. The broadness of the humour and its frequency is perhaps a surprise but it's one of the few welcome ones. Despite the stature of those involved Napoleon comes up short.

Reviewed on: 27 Nov 2023
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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.
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Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: David Scarpa

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Rupert Everett, Mark Bonnar, Paul Rhys, Ben Miles, Riana Duce, Ludivine Sagnier

Year: 2023

Runtime: 158 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, US


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