Jan 12, 2024
Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Rupert Everett
For those who fell asleep during history lessons ‘Napoleon’ may not be the most reliable means of catching up with the little corporal. The feted military commander and emperor of France has kept writers busy for the last two centuries. And the focus splits evenly between his conquests on the battlefield and those in the bedroom. Under the guidance of director Ridley Scott this film edges towards the latter but is no less entertaining. Historical liberties must be taken with a pinch of salt. Sometimes the truth can be dull and copy poorly onto the big screen; so a delicate manipulation of the facts is necessary.
Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) is commissioned as a second lieutenant in the artillery regiment when discontent begins to rumble. Major battles methodically plot Napoleon’s inexorable rise as the French Revolution takes grip on a care worn nation. He is appointed senior gunner and artillery commander of republican forces at the siege of Toulon. Napoleon is soon promoted to Commander of the Interior but romantic entanglements take hold. He meets the infamous Josephine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby) and a tempestuous affair begins. The wars that bore his name are selectively explored including the Battle of Borodino, Austerlitz and Waterloo where he confronts his nemesis the Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett).
Napoleon is a rich and satisfying cocktail of history, intrigue and bodice ripping debauchery. Whilst it veers more towards ‘Bridgerton’ than ‘Waterloo’ (the historically superior account) it’s still a cracking good yarn. Ridley Scott specialises in combat based epics and works his magic here. The battle sequences are spectacular and used minimal computer generated effects, even disguising camera operators as soldiers to blend with the action. Joaquin Phoenix totally nails the cold arrogance of Napoleon whilst Vanessa Kirby delivers a seductive turn as Josephine. Meanwhile Rupert Everett borders on caricature as Wellington but certainly looks the part.
Many would argue with some justification that it lands too heavily on Napoleon’s personal relationships. But his liaison with Josephine will burn more brightly in the mind than the wars he fought. It also broadens the appeal of a film that summarises an incident filled 30 year period. It’s a fine effort to distil the life of a remarkable historical figure.