Napoleon (2023, dir. Ridley Scott)

by | Nov 24, 2023

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 157 mins

UK Distributor: Sony Pictures

UK Release Date: 22 November 2023

WHO’S IN NAPOLEON?

Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Ben Miles, Ludivine Sagnier, Matthew Needham, Youssef Kerkour, Phil Cornwell, Édouard Philipponnat, Ian McNeice, Rupert Everett, Paul Rhys, Catherine Walker, Gavin Spokes, John Hollingworth, Mark Bonnar, Anna Mawn, Davide Tucci, Sam Crane, Scott Handy, Philip Marsden

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Ridley Scott (director, producer), David Scarpa (writer), Mark Huffam and Kevin J. Walsh (producers), Martin Phipps (composer), Dariusz Wolski (cinematographer), Sam Restivo and Claire Simpson (editors)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

The rise and fall of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (Phoenix)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON NAPOLEON?

Even the great Stanley Kubrick wasn’t immune to the realms of development hell, with one of the auteur’s many unrealised projects being a full-scale biographical film about French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. While the shelved film never saw the light of day (though it is reported that Kubrick’s pal Steven Spielberg is developing a TV miniseries based on the research that Kubrick did), Ridley Scott’s own attempt to bring Napoleon to the big screen is oddly close to what we might have gotten.

Despite being an entirely separate project from Kubrick’s version, Scott’s Napoleon still somehow contains traces of his fellow filmmaker’s idiosyncratic personality, from its sweeping and ambitious vision to a rather sly sense of humour, which is often present in many of Kubrick’s films. Whether or not Scott intended for his take on Napoleon Bonaparte to be so closely aligned with the legendary filmmaker’s undeveloped production is entirely speculative, but one thing is for certain: the spirit of Stanley Kubrick lingers over Ridley Scott’s impressively crafted, if narratively inconsistent, feature that is a mostly solid reminder of what big-budget epics can be.

The film charts a sizeable portion of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix), beginning when he was a mere solider witnessing the execution of Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution. We see him quickly rise in the ranks after displaying strong leadership skills and rather ingenious planning that sees him scoring a number of victories against the British and other enemies, and on the side develops a firm attachment to Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby), whom he later marries. Eventually, Napoleon seizes control of France and becomes its Emperor, leading the French Army on a number of crusades with varying degrees of success, leading up to the decisive Battle of Waterloo in 1815, against Britain’s military commander Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett). His marriage to Joséphine also suffers, particularly when she is unable to produce an heir with him, but their unusual relationship keeps them stuck closely together throughout.

With Scott directing from a script by David Scarpa (who previously wrote All the Money in the World for the filmmaker, as well as the upcoming Gladiator sequel), Napoleon wears its epic nature proudly on its uniform. The director brings an extraordinary scope to the film’s many battle sequences, which are often beautifully shot by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and, especially in a moviemaking era where big epics like this are often lathered with CGI, impressive in how seamless it looks within the camera, with the CG trickery, if any at all, kept strictly in the background. He also isn’t afraid to get pretty gruesome in these sequences, with soldiers, public insurrectionists and even horses getting absolutely slaughtered by cannonballs and gunfire, all while the camera lingers on their exposed intestines and sliced-off limbs. By the time we get to the Battle of Waterloo, perhaps Napoleon’s most famous stand, you’re so enthralled by how magnificently Scott has staged these historical battles that they’re almost as big of a star, if not more so, than Joaquin Phoenix is.

Whilst on the subject of its lead actor, Phoenix gives quite a peculiar performance where he certainly shows Napoleon’s ruthlessness as well as his stoicism when it comes to taking and claiming whatever he so desires, but also how petulant and even pathetic he can often be. One moment, he’ll make himself rather intimidating with his stern emotionless gaze, and the next he’ll be shouting from across the dinner table about how destiny brought him to the lamb chop on his plate. His performance is in keeping with the film’s somewhat quirky tone, which flip-flops from being this big and noble epic to a deadpan Woody Allen-esque comedy, one that paints Napoleon as an inadequate figure whose lovemaking skills are laughably awkward, and who is even prone to one or two pratfalls from time to time.

It was in these moments where I began wondering if Scott and Scarpa took some of their cues from Kubrick’s unproduced Napoleon project, since the type of idiosyncratic humour in this film, as well as some purposefully anachronistic soundtrack choices, is not entirely dissimilar to something like the filmmaker’s Barry Lyndon (which, funnily enough, was born out of Kubrick’s research for that project). At the very least, it feels like the director and writer took a glance at what Kubrick planned to do and were inspired to make their Napoleon film as close to that angle as possible, while still keeping it within their own shared vision. Again, this is entirely speculative, but given how strangely executed the overall film is, it’s hard not to think about that whilst watching it.

The film is also one of those biopics that tries to cram in as many significant events in its subject’s life as possible, to where two-and-a-half hours hardly seems enough time to get into it all. As such, a number of achievements throughout Napoleon Bonaparte’s career are either heavily trimmed or reduced to passing mentions in voiceover or on-screen text, such as his conquering of Italy or his second marriage to Marie Louise of Austria. Even Vanessa Kirby’s Joséphine, the more interesting of the central pair, is kept to the sidelines for most of the movie, with a lot of her scenes mostly comprised of awkwardly edited confrontations between her and her petulant husband. As a result, there is a lot of stuff that feels missing here, to where it’s entirely possible that Scott’s planned four-hour cut of the film (due for release at some point in the near future on Apple TV+) fills in a lot of those gaps, not unlike how the director’s cut of Scott’s previous historical epic Kingdom of Heaven is considered to be far superior to the theatrical version.

While the overall execution is uneven, Napoleon has enough going for it to be an impressively crafted piece of epic cinema, led by a filmmaker whose sense of scope is almost deserving of its own biopic. Stanley Kubrick, whether he directly influenced this take on Napoleon Bonaparte or not, would be most amused.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Napoleon is an impressively crafted historical epic that charts the life of Napoleon Bonaparte though a number of fantastic battle sequences, though its tonal inconsistencies and overstuffed narrative cause it to wobble on its tightrope.

Three out of five stars

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