The Movie Waffler New Release Review - NAPOLEON | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - NAPOLEON

Napoleon review
The rise and fall of the infamous French emperor.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Ben Miles, Matthew Needham, Paul Rhys

Napoleon poster

Stanley Kubrick spent much of his career obsessing over a biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte that ultimately never got made due to his insistence on perfectionism. Early in his career, Ridley Scott was viewed as a similarly controlling filmmaker but as he's aged and become more aware of his limited remaining time in this world, Scott has been churning out movies at a prolific rate. Kubrick couldn't make a Napoleon movie in his four decade career but Scott has managed to knock one out just two years after his 2021 double whammy of House of Gucci and The Last Duel.

Kubrick's home was said to have an entire room dedicated to his extensive research on the French emperor. Scott's film suggests he has no more than a dog-eared biography on his bedside locker. Like Baz Luhrmann's Elvis, Scott's Napoleon focusses on the myth over the man, and has little interest in historical accuracy. Unlike Luhrmann's film, Scott's is highly entertaining.

Napoleon review

With Patriots Day, Peter Berg was widely mocked for making it seem like a cop played by Mark Wahlberg was the central figure of the events following the 2013 Boston marathon bombing. But Berg's approach worked for those viewers who wanted an easily digested thriller rather than a detailed and factually accurate account of real life events. The same can be said for Napoleon, which compresses a time in French history that was so eventful it could never be detailed in a single film. Napoleon wasn't present at the guillotining of Marie Antoinette and he never fired at the pyramids, but Scott knows that most of his audience won't care, and such images are a shortcut to creating a sketch of the man and his time rather than a complete portrait. When you get to Scott's age you likely favour doodles over portraits whose paint might not have dried by the time you depart.

Napoleon is played in caricature form by Joaquin Phoenix, the latest in his line of socially awkward schlemiels. It's an anti-hagiography in the manner of Oliver Stone's W, but we're never given an idea of how this awkward little man was able to hold a nation and its armies in his thrall. His great love Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) is reduced to an opportunistic gold-digger. But Phoenix and Kirby are so watchable that it's hard to care about any lack of fealty to the truth.

Napoleon review

Phoenix's Napoleon is a cuckold who is constantly publicly embarrassed by his wife's infidelity and her inability to bear a child, but any time he attempts to confront her on such matters she becomes a dominatrix who makes him feel like a pathetic little boy who can't live without her. Their bickering is hilarious, chiefly because Napoleon knows he can never gain the upper hand with this cunning woman.

The emperor presents a far more confident front in his dealings with his enemies, perhaps drawing inspiration from his wife's treatment of himself in how he arrogantly lords it over foreign rulers whose lands he has subjugated. To the powerful in France it's something of an embarrassment that this common Corsican has risen so steadily, and so he's exiled as soon as he makes his first error, only to stage a remarkable comeback, a resurrection that will likely be referenced by political commentators when Trump inevitably wins the next US election.

Napoleon review

Now an octogenarian, Scott has lost no appetite for staging elaborate and massive battle scenes. The battle of Austerlitz is up there with the best of Scott's set-pieces, with cannonballs ripping through men and horses alike and creating holes in a frozen lake, leading to an icy death for thousands of men. The grand climax is the battle of Waterloo, which famously proved Napoleon's...well, his Waterloo. As bodies pile up and men roll around in agony with limbs barely hanging on, the folly of following a charismatic leader is made painfully clear. While such grand battles can often be confusing, a blur of bloodied bodies, Scott makes it visually clear how the British defeated Napoleon through clever military formations.

Scott has teased a longer cut when the film debuts on streaming service Apple TV+. Perhaps that version will provide more insight into its subject matter, but I highly doubt Scott has left much in the way of character building on the cutting room floor for this initial release. If you want to learn about Napoleon, pick up a book or watch a documentary. If you want a historical romp that's as bawdy as it is bloody, Scott's film is a pleasing diversion.

 is in UK/ROI cinemas from November 22nd.

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