Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is a sumptuous and surprisingly intimate epic featuring the incredible acting of Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby.
PLOT: The true story of Napoleon Bonaparte’s ruthless rise to power and his obsessive love for his first wife, Empress Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby).
GOODBYE: Napoleon has proven to be a formidable adversary that filmmakers must overthrow. No less than Stanley Kubrick tried and failed put together a sumptuous biopic on Napoleon, but other than the contained and expensive Russian flop Waterloo and Abel Gance’s silent film, the infamous military commander never got the big-budget epic it deserved. Leave it to Ridley Scott, at 85, to finally do what Kubrick couldn’t do: make the definitive Napoleon film.
Scott’s film, written by his All the money in the world scribe David Scarpa, continues an interesting trend the director started with his underrated film The last duel. It deconstructs the heroic myth of the epics that Scott himself helped to popularize, placing as much emphasis on the domestic affairs of his anti-heroes as on the wars they fight. Joaquin Phoenix, who teams up with Scott for the first time since Gladiator, makes him a formidable Napoleon. He is able to expertly evoke not only the man’s brilliant tactics on the battlefield (and his sheer cruelty), but also his deep insecurity as a man. He is constantly foiled by his ego and his desire to impress his beloved – but also despised – Joséphine.
Their relationship is both toxic and sometimes playful, with Phoenix and co-star Vanessa Kirby having terrific chemistry. Kirby is superb in her role, standing up to Phoenix and expertly portraying a woman who found it impossible to be faithful, was selfish and conniving, but also proved to be a match for Napoleon. Once he lost his Josephine, Napoleon was never the same, and their aggressive and venomous love is something to behold.
Wisely, Scott keeps the film balanced between the battlefield and the salons of France, with the domestic drama having a similar satirical touch to The last duelwith one or two sex scenes that owe more to MacGruber than any period romance you might have seen. Each half of the film is as successful as the other, with the fight sequences a marvel to behold. The Battle of Austerlitz, part of which the studio has already released online, is masterfully done, as is the climax at Waterloo. As Flower Moon Killersthis was made for Apple TV Plus but is worth seeing in theaters, with editing as lavish as any of his other epics.
My only problem with Napoleon is this – you can tell this is not the definitive Ridley Scott edit. This seems truncated and hopefully frees the four-hour cut he teases to Apple TV as he promised because it requires a much longer version. You have to respect his decision to release a faster version of the film in theaters, but as a die-hard fan, I’ll bet the extended cut still makes for a better film (this tends to be the case for most of Scott’s recuts).
Even though it’s over, Napoleon is a historical epic of sorts, anchored by powerful performances from Phoenix and Kirby. They dominate the film, and no other role in the film is given the same weight as them. Nevertheless, the cast is formidable, including the welcome return of Rupert Everett as Napoleon’s arch-enemy, the Duke of Wellington, Tahar Rahim and many others. Martin Phipps’ music is excellent, while Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography demands the canvas of an IMAX screen, which is how I got the chance to see this.
While the more extended version of Napoleon might end up being one of Ridley Scott’s truly great films, the film as it is should still be seen. Given the way it was produced, it seems destined to find its ultimate home on streaming. It’s further proof that even as he gets older, Scott’s work is as vital as ever, and I hope he can continue making films for years and years to come.