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Napoleon ★★★★



Directed: Ridley Scott

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Ben Miles

Released: 22nd November 2023 (UK cinemas)

Ridley Scott has given us numerous films of great wonder and rich worldbuilding over the past four decades or so. From the claustrophobic confines of the Nostromo, the fire-spewing skylines of a dystopian LA, to the gargantuan cities of ancient Greece, Scott has always skilfully and dramatically depicted both real and fictional worlds. His latest feature, Napoleon, is no different, as it charts the titular leader’s journey across a splintering, warring Europe. In contrast to so many of Scott’s previous films, however, is Napoleon’s bizarreness, largely doing away with a more serious tone in favour of something more absurd and humorous. It shouldn’t work, but somehow, for the most part, it does.

Unsurprisingly, for such an influential and controversial historical figure, there have been a number of films focussing on Napoleon, with Abel Gance’s epic silent film from 1927 being both the most notable and the best. Such was the breadth of Napoleon’s life. Gance needed 330 minutes to portray his career; in Scott’s Napoleon, he covered it in 158 minutes. This causes the film to feel bloated, packing so much in from Napoleon’s revolutionary uprising to his inevitable demise that it never quite delves into any of these moments deep enough.

In Napoleon, gone is the brooding darkness of Gladiator, replaced instead by an amusing portrait of a petty, spoilt man. Screenwriter David Scarpa doesn’t shy away from being a bit different, setting your classic epic historical drama amidst a torrent of farce, satire, and churlish comedy. When Joaquin Phoenix starts making animal noises and demanding sex from wife Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), you know Napoleon isn’t going to be a stoic, straight-faced drama. But despite some initial chuckles, this scene still feels deeply disturbing, which indicates how effectively Scott and Scarpa, on the whole, work with comedy to depict such an infamous man.

They show Napoleon to be an insecure manchild but also hold nothing back in depicting him as an abusive, violent, manipulative brute, both in his marriage to Joséphine and in his military career. The transition between comedy and violence is not always seamless but is generally very effective. Napoleon is an essentially silly affair, stuffed with one-liners about lamb chops or boats, which does detract from the abuse and horrors of war it shows—and yet such absurdism shows in even starker detail how one egotistical man’s petulance and relentless power trip caused the death of at least half a million people.

It is a Scott film; Napoleon is still a marvel in the historical epic department. It might be riddled with historical inaccuracies—not that Scott cares—but Napoleon feels rightfully gargantuan in depicting such a vast, globe-spanning period of history. Cities such as Toulon or Paris feel volatile in their fragility, whilst the snow-draped or rain-soaked battlefields of Europe are spellbindingly realised. The action set pieces are whopping, full-blooded affairs, but if anything, they are too infrequent. Martin Phipps’ pulsating original score is also playful at times, perfectly mirroring the tone of Napoleon.

Many scenes in Napoleon feel brief; more political, dialogue-based set pieces would have been welcome. Scarpa has to cover much ground and time in his screenplay; Napoleon inevitably feels rushed, skimming over the surface of its subjects and events. Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby, who portray the turbulent marriage of Napoleon and Joséphine, are at the film’s centre. Kirby is excellent, more reserved than Phoenix but just as mesmerising; he is equally terrific in what must be one of the oddest performances of his career. Ultimately, Phoenix is the perfect vessel for Napoleon to play out, resulting in an utterly absurd, surprisingly funny, and subtly disturbing performance and film.

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