Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon,” starring Joaquin Phoenix, embarks on a cinematic journey that is as audacious as it is ambitious. This 160-minute biopic is a cavalry charge through the life of one of history’s most enigmatic figures. Scott, like a cinematic Wellington, gallops through the narrative without getting bogged down in the quagmire of historical accuracy or philosophical ponderings, a tactic that has often ensnared other filmmakers in this genre.
Phoenix’s portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte is nothing short of remarkable. He embodies the emperor as a military genius with a penchant for flamboyance, a character that perfectly fits under a bicorne hat and a jaunty tricolour cockade. His Napoleon is not just a commander but a lounge lizard of sorts, a portrayal divergent from the typical solitary dreamer. Scott, in his directorial prowess, casts Napoleon and Joséphine (played by Vanessa Kirby) as the Burton and Taylor of their era – a power couple engulfed in passion and despair. Kirby’s performance as the pragmatically sensual Joséphine adds a vibrant dynamic to this tumultuous relationship.
The film’s treatment of historical events is cheeky yet captivating. Scott imagines scenes such as Napoleon firing at the pyramids during the Egyptian campaign and the execution of Marie Antoinette, offering a blend of historical fiction that is both entertaining and provocative. This narrative choice, while it might irk purists, injects a fresh vitality into the often-staid genre of historical biopics.
Scott’s depiction of Napoleon is not confined to his military exploits. The film delves into his complex personality, portraying him as an astute observer, a master manipulator, and a proto-capitalist entrepreneur.
These facets are brilliantly interwoven into scenes like Napoleon’s first major triumph at Toulon in 1793 and his whimsical, almost petulant interactions with the British. These moments, combined with Phoenix’s performance, elevate Napoleon from a mere historical figure to a multi-dimensional character.
However, despite these strengths, the film is not without its drawbacks. Scott’s narrative, while sweeping and visually stunning, sometimes glosses over the depths of Napoleon's character and his geopolitical impact. The film, akin to a beautifully illustrated Wikipedia page, touches upon major events without delving deeply into the motivations and intricacies behind them. This surface-level exploration leaves the audience with a sense of spectacle over substance, a grand display of battles and costumes rather than a profound understanding of Napoleon’s psyche or the era he dominated.
The portrayal of Napoleon's relationship with Joséphine, though captivating, lacks depth in exploring the emotional complexities between them. The film also skirts around certain historical aspects, such as Napoleon’s reintroduction of slavery in French colonies, choosing instead to focus on more flamboyant aspects of his reign.
Despite these shortcomings, “Napoleon” remains a testament to Scott’s directorial vision and Phoenix’s acting prowess. The film's action sequences, particularly the battle scenes, are executed with a clarity and grandeur that is quintessentially Scott. The ferocity of the battles, juxtaposed with the opulence of the palaces and cathedrals, creates a cinematic experience that is both immersive and exhilarating.
Scott’s “Napoleon” is, at its core, an entertainment piece rather than a historical dissection.
It's a film that prioritizes the vibrancy of spectacle over the nuance of historical accuracy. This approach may not satisfy those seeking a deep dive into Napoleon’s legacy, but it undoubtedly makes for a thrilling cinematic experience. Phoenix’s robust performance, coupled with Scott’s visionary direction, makes “Napoleon” a memorable addition to the pantheon of historical epics. While it may not delve into the deeper metaphysical meanings or the darker aspects of Napoleon’s reign, it succeeds in presenting a vibrant, if somewhat superficial, portrait of one of history’s most fascinating figures.