MA 15+, 158 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The defiant, scowling figure slouching on the French throne on the flyers that advertise Ridley Scott’s latest epic, need not feel too defensive about the latest film made about him. As a biopic, it barely scratches the surface and leaves so many questions about Napoleon unanswered. The man who has inspired a couple of hundred films and hundreds of thousands of books is still an enigma.

As a historical spectacle, however, Napoleon is one helluva of a brilliant ride, and Joaquin Phoenix an interesting casting choice as the famous emperor, mocked as a man without manners.

Was he really so uncouth? Maybe not as stylish as the French would have liked, but he was the son of minor Italian nobility and attended military academy in Paris. If he always spoke with a Corsican accent, it didn’t seem to diminish his skill at rallying the French troops.

Ultimately, he did meet his Waterloo and his life ended, as it had begun, on a small island

It is incredible to think that the post-revolutionary First Consul who became Emperor faced no less than seven coalitions of European forces as they tried to topple the Corsican upstart from the French throne. Ultimately, he did meet his Waterloo and his life ended on a small island, just like it had begun.

This movie has to be seen on the big screen. This is top-flight immersive cinema, made with a wonderful eye for what looks good and with great flair for creating experiential entertainment. Scott and his cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski, a frequent collaborator, have created a dazzling kinetic cinema experience.

The veteran director has, of course, an enviable filmography of influential genre movies, including Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, and Gladiator, so it’s a pity that the writing here lacks insight as an exploration of a key historical figure. The screenplay by David Scarpa (now working with Scott on Gladiator II) is written for the contemporary ear, and that’s okay, but it doesn’t delve much into the family background of this fascinating historical figure nor place his remarkable legacy within the context of modern European history. After the cries of battle dim, this is something worth googling.

As portrayed here, Napoleon Bonapart is both soldier and passionate lover. A military man, a brilliant strategist and tactician who longed for and loved his lively wife, the fawn-eyed Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). The occasional voiceover, based on letters they wrote to each other while he was away on campaigns, reveal the depth of their feelings for each other.

Yet a cursory glance at modern history reveals his awesome legacy. A legal code, underpinned by principles of fraternity, liberty and equality under the law, that was carried across Europe and remains there to this day. A key role in the end of the Holy Roman Empire, and in the rise of the middle classes and meritocracy. How did Napoleon achieve this? A critical dimension to his story but it is not so easy to translate to screen.

The action opens on Napoleon, a gunnery officer in the army during the French Revolution, witnessing the death by guillotine of Queen Marie Antoinette. In fact, he was not present at that event in 1793, but poetic licence allows us to see that he doesn’t cheer like the rest of the bloodthirsty mob. It signals something else is going on for him.

Phoenix’s strangulated voice and surly manner are a good match for his controversial character

The bravura staging of Napoleon’s first significant military victory a few months later that year, with the recapture of the port city and naval stronghold of Toulon, augurs well. There are many beautifully staged battle sequences to come, as the film sticks with the military side of things.

Phoenix’s strangulated voice and surly manner are a good match for his controversial character, and Kirby is a wonderful Josephine. From time-to-time a voiceover reveals the contents of their private letters, and the film concludes with some odd suggestions that the pair were a co-dependent power couple. Now that’s an angle surely worthy of another film.

I’ve a sneaking suspicion that including the famous victory led by Wellington (Rupert Everett) gave the filmmaker a certain satisfaction. In a totally invented scene, Wellington and Napoleon, who never met, express a shared appreciation for things English. Gentle light, rolling hills, and substantial breakfasts. It’s a bit bizarre but also a welcome down-to-earth note on which to end the story of a man who lived enough lives for ten men.

First published in the Canberra Times on 24 November 2023.  Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes