Napoleon – REVIEW

Napoleon - Not tonight Josephine?

France is a truly beautiful country spoiled only by the fact that its full of the French but its little wonder that tin pot tyrant Napoleon was keen to defend the country’s honour against the English. It’s Napoleon, a then senior ranking military man, who takes on the responsibility of ousting the British from the port of Toulon where the Brit soldiers, already with a reputation as drunken, boorish louts find a full scale siege launched against them which could have been avoided merely by telling them that the neighbouring town was opening up a new Wetherspoons. But the 1793 Battle of Toulon is the first of many battles staged by director Ridley Scott and it is fierce, brutal and bloody but clever tactics prove an easy win for Napoleon who finds himself promoted and leading his troops into further battle glory.

But all of this is played against his marriage to Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), a right little strumpet even by French standards, and his letters to her when he was away on campaigns should be the backbone of the film. Despite his fierce reputation he is besotted with her and she knows it only too happy to take lovers when is away fighting (and his humiliation becomes a matter of national interest by her being in the press)  knowing that he will always come back to her telling  him to his face that she is as powerful as him if not more so.  And yet she soon finds that she will be dispensable when she fails to give him a child which he blames on her when he tests his own fertility by fathering fathers a child with another like the latest tawdry episode of The Life and Times of Boris Johnson.

The film is very much a battle by battle account of  Napoleon up to his exile and death and out of necessity is therefore at epic length for the cinema experience and will be a four hour version when this appears on Apple TV. The battles are spectacularly bloody and well choreographed notably the battle of Toulon and the leaders tactical genius is best seen in a battle where he draws the enemy onto a frozen lake. It’s a set piece that has some particularly vivid and unforgettable imagery and nothing less would be expected from Ridley Scott whose mastery of spectacle is undoubted.  But there is a sense of the diminishing returns with each subsequent on-screen battle and its the very end of the film where a list of statistics illustrate how cavalier he was with his soldiers lives with hundreds of thousands killed and despite his tactical genius his decline is first seen in a prolonged march on Russia where he loses troops to sickness and famine and consequently desertion of his troops. The decline in tactical nous comes to a head at, of course, Waterloo that saw his downfall ( and subsequent rise in power pop combo ABBA).

Joaquin Phoenix commits to the role as might be expected but there’s really only the once when we see anything beyond arrogance and that’s at the moment before the siege of Toulon where he exhibits a very real fear and nervousness moments before the order to attack is given. But all this soon disappears and David Scarpa’s script especially in the first half of the film has some unexpectedly  funny lines most notably when Napoleon loses his rag at Josephine over dinner with guests when he screams, ‘ Destiny has bought me these pork chops’. Scenes of him rutting away like a safari park chimp at a bored Josephine are comic too but its Kirby whose role needed more scenes as she was so clearly the key to his character who, despite divorcing her, never stopped loving her to his dying day and that love story should have been as compelling as the battle scenes.

This is not the first biopic we have had about the French emperor and most famously was a project that Stanley Kubrick had spent his usual customary years of research prepping intending Jack Nicholson to take the role until the box office flop ‘Waterloo’ (1970) with Rod Steiger saw him drop the project – (his research wasn’t totally lost as his under rated epic ‘Barry Lyndon’ (1975) made good use of it). But ultimately Ridley Scott’s scale and vison of the project makes this a watchable albeit not one of the films he will be best remembered.

Related feature : Joaquin Phoenix – ‘I Don’t Know What to Do’ in Napoleon……

Related feature : Film maker Mark Cousins chats to us about his film, ‘March on Rome’

Here’s the trailer…….


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