The trailers and marketing for Napoleon will lead you to believe this to be a more serious historical version of Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power and his battles during the French Revolution, which left millions of soldiers dead.
When in fact we are presented a much deeper look at the man than we were expecting. Played completely expressionless by Joaquin Phoenix, we see a deeply insecure “Little Corporal” consumed by the need for more and more power and an insatiable love and sexual desire for Joséphine who is played wonderfully by Vanessa Kirby.
Of course with Ridley Scott at the helm we are still afforded the grand historical epic set pieces with Napoleon’s greatest victories displayed in the blood and guts you would expect to see across the decades he ran riot across Europe and Russia.
The film starts off by dropping us right into the the French ‘Reign of Terror’ a period during the French Revolution when a struggle for power caused mass killings and public execution’s, resulting in thousands of beheadings including that of Marie Antoinette.
As Phoenix’s Napoleon, at the time a 24 year old artillery commander watches on, there is opportunity in the air for him as chaos runs the streets a power is waiting to be grabbed. And it’s on the battlefield that Napoleon stands out, his eye for strategy is what aids his military conquests, using this alongside his own ambitions he is able to guide himself into the seat of Emperor.
The pacing of the film can be tedious, we are thrust through the years of Napoleons rise to power with a select few of the battles that put him in command depicted. With the film then coming to a halt to linger on his overactive libido, much of the film focuses on his marriage to Joséphine and his absolute need to produce an heir.
These are the scenes where Phoenix’s portrayal of Napoleon is surprising, for a man that conquered most of Europe and Russia with hundreds of thousands of soldiers, he is not so commanding in private. He is insecure in his relationship, jealous, obsessed with Joséphine and wound up tighter than his uniform. With his desperation for an heir, we see him in almost sex-comedy fashion have sex with his wife at jackrabbit speed. All in all showcasing how his character is deeply flawed and emotionally immature.
Napoleon is almost two films in one, a personal look at the man himself and the depiction of his impact on history and the battles he led. Those battles are expertly crafted by Scott across a mixture of locations and landscapes from Egypt to the ice covered Battle of Austerlitz and most impressively the Battle of Waterloo.
All done on a large scale with big crowds of extras, it doesn’t shy away from the bloody reality of what cannonballs do to human bodies, it’s a brutal portrayal of war in the 18th & 19th centuries. Its technically impressive use of CGI & slow-motion shots put us on the battlefield showcasing the grim reality of being under Napoleons command.
Balancing both the personal life of Napoleon and his military exploits, across decades of time within a 2.5 hour film is what holds it back from being a top-tier exceptional film. The beautiful cinematography of the battles and landscapes were much more engaging than the personal exploits of Joaquin Phoenix’s emotionally stunted Napoleon.
It’s for these reason towards the end of the film I was craving more military scenes and even though we are rewarded with a wonderful depiction of the Battle of Waterloo and the sheer scale of it on the big screen was a joy to watch. There just wasn’t quite enough of his military might on display, no explanation of his tactical genius, no aftermath, no celebration of victory. As stunning as the battles are we are thrown in and out of them.
With a rumored 4 hour directors cut coming to Apple TV it will be interesting to see how the plot plays out, if at all any different.