Ridley Scott’s Napoleon doesn’t jettison the cradle-to-grave biopic of so-called great men as much as discredit it with a discernible wink. Rather than serving as a comprehensive chronicle of the eighteenth-century French conqueror, Napoleon is a parade of significant vignettes. The film packages its anti-biopic approach with the elegance afforded by big-budget productions while presenting Napoleon’s arc with a slyness usually found among Hollywood outliers.
Joaquin Phoenix indelibly plays Napoleon Bonaparte with an elusiveness that befits the film’s treatment. Phoenix’s enigmatic, playful and casually authoritarian Napoleon saunters rather than strides into the hallways and battlegrounds that will earn him a place in history books. He’s a man of his time but also already beyond time – as aspect that is vividly brought out in the scene when he arrives in Egypt and witnesses the fate of its pharaohs.
First encountered during the anarchy of the French Revolution in 1789, Napoleon makes a play for total power, swatting away royalists and opponents while proving his military genius through a series of wars. One conquest bedevils Napoleon.
Out of the chaos of the French Revolution emerges Josephine. Played by Vanessa Kirby with becoming hauteur laced with animalistic survival instincts, Josephine provides Napoleon with an emotional anchor. She marries Napoleon but stays just out of his reach in the same way that the movie itself stops short of an unambiguous portrayal.
Helpful title cards chart the years and locations of Napoleon’s rise. He marches on uninterrupted until a campaign in Russia, where his eventual Waterloo is foreshadowed.
If the Russia segment references Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 classic Alexander Nevsky, Scott’s film has resounding echoes of Stanley Kubrick’s equally elusive Barry Lyndon (1975) – among Kubrick’s unrealised projects was a Napoleon biopic. Scott’s own directorial debut The Duellists (1977), set during the Napoleonic Wars, haunts his latest account of the folly of narcissistic power-mongers.
Renowned cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s soft lighting and painterly compositions reflect a pre-photography era. Scott’s reputation for brutal and yet poetic battle sequences punctuate a narrative filled with conversations and arguments. In the quietest, and most compelling, moments, Napoleon and Josephine sit at either ends of a couch, he uninhibited in his ardour and she implacable in her reserve.
The mildly satirical tone in David Scarpa’s screenplay is a nifty way to avoid an explicit critique of Napoleons reign, while also providing a fresh way to drag the moth-balled historical drama into the revisionist present. The movie isn’t quite history as farce, but it’s nearly there.
There is startling guts-and-gore detailing in the violence wrought by Napoleon, but also a studious distance from the man whose overweening ambition reshaped France, and much of the world. “I see nothing but success in my future,” Napoleon declares in one of his many missives to Josephine. Surely he’s joking?
If Napoleon appears to be parodying himself at times, there’s never any danger of taking Tahar Rahim, as French courtier Paul Barrass, or Rupert Everett as British duke Arthur Wellesley, too seriously either.
The light touch carries over for the most part. Hypnotic in its own way but also slippery at times, the 160-minute movie is kept on course by Scott’s masterly staging – magisterial without the bombast, delicate where it could have been heavy-handed – vividly filmed battle scenes, and the two perfectly judged central performances.
The general is most electric in his grown-up dynamic with his consort, which is tempered with an understanding of how transactional such relationships could be. If Phoenix is quietly mesmerising, Kirby is combustible.
Napoleon is never more petulant when he demands absolute fidelity from Josephine, or credible in his yearning for her even after the relationship has ended. Inscrutable for the most part, Phoenix’s Napoleon gives himself away when he first sets eyes on Josephine. Of all his conquests, she proves to be the most challenging – and the most elusive.