Ridley Scott's NAPOLEON gives us at least one stone-cold classic battle scene, one decent runner-up and an admirably concise tour through the iconic French General and soi-disant Emperor's career. It's all wrapped in a pacy two and half hour historical epic complete with luscious costumes, lavish locations and emperors aplenty. But the film as a whole does not coalesce - it is not as compelling a story as Scott's GLADIATOR - and this is because of screenwriter David Scarpa's fatal decision to balance fifty percent battles with fifty percent love story.
In Scarpa's retelling, the tragic story of Napoleon is not one a military genius brought low by his political egotism and tyrannical excess. No, in Scarpa's view this is the tragedy of a man who succeeded when he was with Josephine and failed when he was not. The problem is we never actually see what Josephine does for him. Did she perchance give him confidence, or teach him etiquette, or inspire his victories, or make him happy? We see none of this on screen - at least in the theatrical cut. Rather, we get Joaquin Phoenix's childish, sex-obsessed, possessive boor acknowledge his wife is a "slut" but remain loyal to her regardless. And poor Vanessa Kirby is saddled with some laughable dialogue as Josephine, and precious little character development. It isn't clear why either of these characters like each other, let alone love each other.
The major crisis in their relationship is that she can't bear him a child and heir. In real life this was explained by the fact that she was older than him and fifteen years into the marriage, past her child-bearing years. But Scott has cast a woman visibly much younger than Phoenix so all the chat about fertility just feels bizarre.
The casting is even more problematic when it comes to Phoenix, who is a fine actor, but just too old for the vast majority of this film. He works well as the weary, older, defeated, delusional egomaniac. But he does not work at all as the younger, charismatic, soldier who inspired not just a nation but a world of progressive liberal democrats. We see nothing of his charisma - no explanation of why his coup d'etat succeeded, why the French accepted him as Emperor, or why soldiers returned to him in 1815 despite his having been responsible for so many deaths in Russia.
You can probably gather that I am not a fan of this film, although I will withhold final judgment until the contains one stone-called classic sequence: the recreation of the battle of Austerlitz. Napoleon's most famous tactical victory against the Russian-Austrian alliance is visually arresting, clearly delineated, and profoundly moving. Moreover we see its political importance in bringing about a temporary peace in the European wars that would absorb the continent for the better part of twenty years.
The rest of the battles are more or less fine. Toulon is depicted as Napoleon's early triumph. Borodino is scarcely touched: wise, given that Sergei Bondarchuk's WAR AND PEACE will never be beaten in that regard. And Waterloo is compressed and flattened but basically does the job it needs to do. I am not entirely sure why Ridley Scott cast Richard Everett, twenty years too old, to play Wellington. After all the British General was Napoleon's exact contemporary: they were born on the same day. I rather enjoyed Everett's robust performance as a no-nonsense British victor, but let's be honest, it bears nothing to do with the real Wellington.
But here we get into the realm of nitpicking. Of course Napoleon didn't see Marie-Antoinette beheaded, or bomb the pyramids, or ride into battle sabre in hand once a General. Ridley Scott says we should "get over it". I kind of agree. I don't require my historical fiction to hue to the facts. I love big historical dramatic films. The problem with this one is that it gains nothing entertaining from its inaccuracies, and forces us to watch an altogether limp love affair when we might have seen more battles.
NAPOLEON is rated R and has a running time of 158 minutes. It was released in cinemas today and will be released later in a director's cut on Apple TV.