Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” Commits Factual Genocide, And It is Beautiful
No one alive knows exactly what Napoleon Bonaparte looks like. That changed on November 22, 2023, with the release of Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon”, a 157-minute historical epic that resurrects the French general in Joaquin Phoenix’s cosplay.
It should be a biopic on the rise and fall of history’s greatest general, birthed by the French Revolution, only that it is not. Careful to avoid the two-century-long characterization of Napoleon as a reformer and military genius fit to be included in the class of Alexander the Great and Caesar (you don’t win over 60 battles, bringing Europe to its knees and not get to party with the elite club!), this movie takes audacious detour.
Scott makes it clear that he has gotten bored of the charade and responds by throwing facts and chivalry to the wind, chiseling a less-heroic character than the one history has come to glorify–despite his war-mongering costing millions of lives. And not all are amused by his new take.
The French, unsurprisingly protective of their 19th-century Emperor, have taken offense at his depiction as an irritable, sex-loving politician-warlord with scant regard for gentility and anyone in love of boats. Scott’s reply? “The French don’t even like themselves.”
However, you do not need to be French – only keen-eyed – to instantly react to the early scene of an unrefined Bonaparte at the beheading of Queen Marie Antoinette with question mark-shaped brows (since the history books suggest that he was in the south of France at the time.) If you are French – or paid attention in history class – then the next 150 minutes would not be your most graceful.
You would nearly scream at the scene of Napoleon’s artillery assault on the Pyramids at Giza during his Egyptian campaign, which is a move akin to Scott giving the middle finger to potential haters.
Not helping the temper of historical gatekeepers is the film’s brisk traversal through almost three decades of history, displaying little remorse for skimming over pivotal moments in the Frenchman’s illustrious career. The sole breadcrumbs indicating the passage of time and location are title cards, as the sun either sets or rises without a lingering exploration.
More evidence of the dismissal of Napoleon’s shiny image is the passive attention paid to the love interest, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), to a degree that is too close for comfort. For a man who had Europe–sans Russia–at his feet, he is shown to be enslaved by the bosom of a woman.
Why he loves her despite him sharing her bosom with a dozen other men, and whether she loves him at all, remains a mystery (at least for now, pending the release of the 4-hour Director’s cut on Apple TV+).
What we come to know for sure from their highly dysfunctional relationship is that Kirby’s Josephine compliments Phoenix’s Bonaparte, soul, and body. So much so that she boldly declares, “You are nothing without me,” to which her husband, the Lord of Europe, humbly concedes, “I am.”
Had it been another actor donning the bicorne black beaver felt hat, this review might have taken a completely different trajectory. However, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is not the source of contention. Occasionally, glimpses of his previous significant role as the Joker seep into his melancholy moments. Yet, this is a deliberate portrayal of a flawed character, one he aptly embodies both physically and mentally.
When not infusing comedic elements to alleviate the somber and gritty atmosphere, the movie delivers the eye-candy: awe-inspiring battle scenes shot on an unbelievably enormous set.
Obviously, 85 years has had a negligible impact on Scott’s famous action-scene touch. He marries ice, blood, and cannons in the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz in such a manner that for the first time, you feel pity and occasionally smirk at how it is so wonderfully shot.
If that fails to impress you then the thunderous and beautifully choreographed 1815 Battle of Waterloo will. Executed with Game of Thrones-level intricacy, this set-piece has a different air to it that may cause many people to infer a farewell gesture before Napoleon’s fateful “waterloo” even unfolds.
He may be doomed to be always remembered for “Gladiator,” but it is the creative liberty of Scott, aided by David Scarpa’s screenplay that makes his latest epic, well…epic.
This is not an attempt to put “Napoleon” on the same pedestal as the 2000 film. No. The near-non-existence of the substance of the former’s leading character, and that of his wife badly hurt its status.
But by doing what few have dared to do in looking beyond history’s horizon and letting myths reign, “Napoleon ” challenges the status quo of a genre long bound by the shackles of “as it happened.” Instead, it asks, “It did not happen. So”? although not exactly in the most brilliant of ways. It deserves a point regardless.
An epilogue that bluntly highlights the death toll of the Napoleonic wars on Europe (with 3 million casualties) sits uneasy in the mind, as does this rare appreciation of the nuanced complexity of Napoleon beyond his military exploits. The French public does not see it that way. Scott and Phoenix do.
Release Date: November 22, 2023
Runtime: 2 hours, 37 minutes
Streaming Service: Cinematic Release, Apple TV+
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vannessa Kirby, Edouard Phillopponnat, Anna Mawn, Rupert Everett, Paul Rhys, Catherine Walker, Mark Bonnar, and Tahir Rahim