Napoleon: Ridley Scott’s confident biopic confirms his own status as a cinematic general

Spectacular set pieces and enticing moments of melodrama make Ridley Scott’s fairly academic approach to Napoleon Bonaparte feel eminently watchable.

16 November 2023

By Jonathan Romney

Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte
Sight and Sound

At the very least, Ridley Scott’s latest film can be considered a display of Napoleonic confidence – at once carrying off the feat that Stanley Kubrick never managed and blithely risking comparison with a milestone of silent cinema, Abel Gance’s epic of 1927.

Gance’s Napoléon was highly traditional, with its debt to 19th-century history painting, but it was also radically modernist, its climactic three-screen projection the granddaddy of blockbuster immersiveness. By contrast, Scott’s film is academic, archaic, yet eminently watchable – a biopic with spectacular set pieces, a hefty load of educational content and an alluring streak of bedchamber melodrama.

Nothing if not grandiose, Napoleon confirms Scott’s own status as a cinematic general, commanding legions of actors and technicians: in the battle recreations, aerial shots and widescreen convey a precise sense of military formations and their deployment. Kinetically taking us into the thick of battle, the film is anything but euphemistic about the carnage behind the fabled place names. At Austerlitz, men and horses plummet through icy blood-streaked water; at the siege of Toulon, Bonaparte’s face is spattered with blood after his horse dies in a shower of entrail.

Scott and his star Joaquin Phoenix appear to take some prompts from the 1927 film – notably, the supercilious detachment with which Bonaparte surveys the shenani- gans at a post-Terror ‘Bal des Victimes’ echoes the frowning solemnity of Gance’s lead Albert Dieudonné. But Scott’s film follows its own direction in humanising its subject: this Bonaparte avidly subscribes to his own myth, as blindly in thrall to it as anyone else. “I am not built like other men and I am not subject to petty insecurity,” he tells his wife Josephine, despite having just returned from Egypt in a jealous rage. For all his brilliance and bravery, he is an anxious soldier from the start: at Toulon, besieging Royalist rebels, he mutters under his breath, then makes little nervous grunts as he climbs a ladder into battle. Later, before the coup d’état establishes him in power, he flees an angry crowd, gasping, “They’re going to kill me!” (very nearly this film’s ‘Infamy! Infamy!’ moment).

Counterpointing Napoleon’s conquest is a faintly raunchy account of Josephine’s conquest of him. First seen released from imprisonment under the Terror, she catches Bonaparte’s eye at the aforementioned ball with her proto-punk crop and décolletage, then imperiously asserts her sexual domination over this shy, awkward soldier, parting her thighs in a knowing act of possession. Later, frantic at learning that Josephine has a lover, Napoleon returns from Egypt to confront her, initiating a new closeness in their relationship: clumsy and insensitive in his lovemaking, he nevertheless seems to impress her with his gauche enthusiasm and sheer appetite (at one point, even dragging her under the imperial dinner table). But, until he divorces her, the power balance is in her favour: she tells Napoleon, “Without me, you’re nothing,” and at the very end of the film, she suggests to him in voiceover that in another life, she will be Emperor.

Phoenix never quite brings Bonaparte to life as a knowable being – an all but impossible task, surely – but he does flesh him out in interesting ways. He gives him the heavy, leggy stride of a seasoned horseman; emphasises his languid heavy-lidded gaze. At the start, Phoenix’s American-accented delivery has a light, Malkovichian airiness, becoming more harshly forceful as the film progresses. As Josephine, the silky voiced Vanessa Kirby doesn’t quite go through comparable changes but overall, offers a richer, more intriguing performance as a woman who has learned to use her sexuality to survive the Terror, and who seems startled by the complex feelings she develops as the adored and abused spouse of a self-made legend: an extreme prototype of the modern trophy wife.

David Scarpa’s script is generally confident, but not without salient oddities: Napoleon hisses at a British ambassador, “You think you’re so great because you have boats!” The two leads apart, the film rarely allows anyone else to impose their presence – a notable exception being a featured Rupert Everett, ripely lofty as the Duke of Wellington. The other star, of course, is the iconic hat, which Bona- parte initially wears at a rakish diagonal, before straightening it for battle at Toulon, in a determined ‘Let’s rock’ gesture. This is shortly after an English soldier has yelled at him, “Oi shitbag!” – not that the film emphasises it, but you might well imagine this as the primal moment that sparked a whole career and the formidable battlefield death-toll chronicled in the end credits.  

 ► Napoleon is in UK cinemas on 22 November. 

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