Film Review- Napoleon


Napoleon Bonaparte is an iconic figure whose story we feel we know and in a sense we do. Ridley Scott’s ambitious biopic aims to corral his busy life into a little over two and a half hours, a length that would suffice most movies but which seems to make this one rather piecemeal. Then I found out that there’s a four hour version to be made available for streaming soon and that is probably going to be a more complete and probably more satisfying look at his life. Napoleon seems to get an easier ride than history’s other dictators and this movie does little to draw attention to the fact he was a villain in his story however you slice it.


This theatrical version comes over more like `Napoleon’s Greatest Hits` as it leaps like a gazelle through the years covering each development but showing many of them superficially and makes the politics of France seem more like a school playground - maybe it was? Crucially it fails to catch the charisma that made Napoleon so beloved by many of his subjects. He had a decade or so as Emperor between early victories and exile and this seems to flit by quickly. This Napoleon seems more a willing victim of circumstance rather than a very ambitious man and there is no real sense of why people followed him. It does show his keen sense of battle tactics though.

I recently watched the 1970 film Waterloo which takes two hours just to deal with Bonaparte’s latter period after his escape from exile in St Helena. There’s a notable scene where his return to France is intercepted by soldiers sent to turn him away but instead end up joining him. In the 1970 movie Rod Steiger delivers a speech that shows the sheer force of personality that can cause hundreds of soldiers to change sides. The same scene in this movie doesn’t do that; as elsewhere Napoleon is presented as a bit grumpy, grouchy and just another General. Perhaps the modern view of Rod Steiger’s performance is that it’s over the top but what was Napoleon if not an OTT figure?

The individual battle sequences are exquisitely portrayed though and provide the most convincing reason to see this film.  Early on at the siege of Toulon, Napoleon’s tactical chops ensure a victory that we are very much part of thanks to fluid camera work and immersive sound. It is one of the few times in the movie we feel the thrill of victory. The other is Austerlitz, another tactical win for Boney, and inventively filmed here using wide shots and close ups to give the battle a mixture of scale and tension. Surges of cavalry charges across the snowy terrain are mingled with underwater shots of cannonballs whizzing, blood flowing and ice cracking. In contrast Waterloo is a slog thanks to the weather and the chess like precision with which it was fought (you can’t blame Ridley Scott for that) and perhaps the mood is heavier because it represents the end of the line for the upstart Emperor.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots to like about this film. It is a robust epic with plenty of spectacle and some charm with a surprisingly flirtatious relationship between Napoleon and Josephine, who is played by Vanessa Kirby. It is just that all these scenes don’t flow together as well as they should betraying that this is an edit of a longer work. Somehow I don’t think we get a real sense of the man and because most other characters, aside from Josephine, are defined by their rank or position there isn’t much perspective on Napoleon from anyone else. Even Josephine, though clearly hugely inspiring to her husband, is not really given any background of her own, we don’t really know who she is.

Joaquín Phoenix does give an honest performance in trying to show Napoleon the man as opposed to the icon and you get more of a sense of him in some lightly played scenes with Josephine. Yet as an orator and inspirational character, which by all accounts he was, a decision has clearly been made to tone down leaving the audience thinking `well what’s so special about him then?` I don’t really agree with saving the best version of your film for streaming especially when Ridley Scott has been a supporter of cinemas. After all he could have followed the example of Dune and released two separate films. As it stands this version of Napoleon feels incomplete and lacking in the sort of detail that the Emperor himself would surely have demanded.



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