Napoleon, the film that escaped the talents of Stanley Kubrick opens this week under the military gaze of Sir Ridley Scott. Responsible for the reanimating the historical epic with 2000’s Gladiator, it’s fair to say that much is expected of this large-scale, full frontal assault of prose and pageantry.
And indeed, the film opens with vistas and the kind of world-building that Ridley Scott has made his name on. When we meet Bonaparte, he is a lonely figure at the beheading of Marie Antoinette. Watching post-revolutionary France tear itself apart as it runs out of scape-goats for its financial disintegration and political flirtations, it looks like the monarchy are about to resume ownership of a broken nation. However, it soon becomes clear that, aided by a penchant for training canons upon civilians and cavalry alike, whoever controls Bonaparte, controls France.
Inevitably, they have give Bonaparte the top job which Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon takes on with the condition of being addressed as “emperor”. Yet, like many Caesars before him, there is a chink in his amore. His is bewitched by former royalist, Josephine, as played by Vanessa Kirby. Lady Macbeth to his cuckolded king, she keeps him on a short leash when he craves nothing more than her ardour. So conquests and capitals be damned, Napoleon courtship of Kirby’s courtesan acts as both pre and post-match entertainments in between Scott’s hyper-dept camera dragging you through all the bloodshed.
As Napoleon, Joaquin Phoenix does a commendable job as the rejected and rebuffed conqueror of worlds who can’t tame his animal urges or his inability to sire an heir upon which France depends. Like, his nemesis the Duke of Wellington, as played by Rupert Everett, both he and Phoenix stand apart from the bit players in a contest of who can sport the stiffest upper lip in modern cinema. Wisely eschewing their invitation to join in, Kirby emerges as the most humane and interesting character of the whole ensemble. Intriguing, indifferent and indomitable, she is the person that Napoleon most aspires to and yet can never quite conquer.
Sadly though, cut adrift by the requirements of historical fidelity and the film’s title, Napoleon stays with Napoleon during his many exiles, returns and subsequent revenges. Forming up on lines of troops walking into carnage, the finale becomes a muddied game of who blinks first and that’s the final tragedy. Lacking the soulful quality that Russell Crowe brought to Maximus Decimus Meridius’s farmer-turned-soldier, there’s sadly little sympathy here to be found for a cuckolded king with gift for mortar fire and intimidation.
Should you see Napoleon? Well, if you see him advancing upon your position in Apple TV’s streaming list then yes. But as for the larger battlefield of a cinema complex, I would advise you stay your nerve until you can see the whites of Vanessa Kirby’s eyes. That’s because she’s the real commandant here in all but title.