Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by David Scarpa
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby and Tahar Rahim
Classification 14A; 157 minutes
Opens in theatres Nov. 22
There are two wars being waged, each bloody and brutal, in the excellent and essential new historical epic Napoleon. The first is that of the French emperor himself, with the film steadily chronicling a handful of his 19th-century triumphs (the siege of Toulon, the icy victory of Austerlitz) as well as his disastrous failures (Waterloo), adding up to an empire-dismantling portrait of an icon who is both ingenious and unstable. But it is that second war – the battle for the artistic soul of director Ridley Scott – that is the more important one when it comes to understanding and appreciating Napoleon the movie, if not also Napoleon the man.
The unstoppably prolific Scott, now 85 years old, crashes into the fall film season at a curious point in his career: Is he a roaring lion of the industry like Martin Scorsese (at 81 earning some of the best reviews of his career for Killers of the Flower Moon) and Michael Mann (80 with Ferrari speeding down the pipe)? Or is he, as a giant New Yorker profile has recently compelled audiences to ponder, the ultimate studio super-hack – a man who has gotten lucky as many times as he’s been caught red-handed?
The evidence for either case is overwhelming to consider – for every Blade Runner there is a Legend, every Alien a Prometheus – with Scott himself having zero tolerance for such games by playfully leap-frogging from one genre to the next for the entirety of his filmography. How can anyone hope to nail down the particular flavour of an artist when he has as much taste for pitch-black comedy (Matchstick Men, The Counselor) as he does gritty military action (Black Hawk Down, G.I. Jane) and full-hearted character drama (Thelma & Louise)?
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The fun of a Ridley Scott film, then, is not in figuring out how they add up to make a man, but in seeing which pieces that man gives of himself to make each film. And for Napoleon, Scott gives every last little slice of himself – the dramatist, the set-piece strategist, even, and especially, the comedian – to deliver what just might be his late-career masterpiece.
The director, alongside his All the Money in the World screenwriter David Scarpa, makes one of the film’s best moves right off the top, abandoning a cradle-to-grave biopic in favour of narrowing the focus to Napoleon’s military history. When the film opens, the anti-hero (Joaquin Phoenix) is a young Corsican lieutenant with an eye for climbing France’s social ladder, no matter if that means yanking the steps up once he’s ascended despite the fates of whoever else might be still holding on. Finding favour on the field as well as with such power-hungry figures as politician Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim), Napoleon steadily carves his path through the chaos of a country swept by revolution, eventually rising to emperor and setting off to play the nations of Europe against each other like so many pieces on a chess board.
Yet the man – and Scott’s film – is as focused on conquering the world as he is the mind and body of Empress Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), who proves to be a formidable figure as any Napoleon has faced in battle. With their domestic spats brutish and bruising, passionate and poisonous, Napoleon and Josephine’s relationship offers a portrait of marriage edging close to and then straight past mania. It can either be read as a cautionary tale of letting the heart want what it wants, or an instructive guide on the unrivalled pleasures of handing the entirety of yourself over to another to do with what they please, damn the consequences to yourself and the world at large.
Going back and forth between the courts of politicians, the stained fields of carnage and the many luxuriously appointed bedrooms of two insatiable lovers, Scott offers a dizzying guide to the corrupt ends of selfishness, in all its forms. This might be the obvious approach – who would make a Napoleon movie uninterested in the levers of power? – but it takes a grand and supremely skilled storyteller to execute it all with such magnificent wit, energy and spectacle.
In every element of his film, Scott identifies a wild, seemingly insurmountable challenge and then sets forth to trounce it with the confidence of a man who has never let anyone see him sweat. The battles are roaring, bone-shaking experiences that are immediately stripped of glory (audiences will never again underestimate the destructive force of a cannonball, specifically what it can do to a horse). The costumes and set designs are luxurious, meticulous feats. The music is stirring, the scenery startling, the everything of it all simply so giant that the film practically begs for a subtitle: Napoleon: They Don’t Make ‘Em Like This Any More.
But it is Scott’s control of, or perhaps looser-than-others’ leash on, his stars that ensures the whole film roars and rips. Phoenix, reuniting with his Gladiator director to play another sneering megalomaniac, sinks as deep as one can go into the title tyrant, all petulance and venom. And Kirby matches her madman lover beat for beat, offering a performance so sharp that she tactfully bites instead of chews the scenery. Most importantly, both stars are allowed and graciously encouraged to be funny, with Phoenix and Kirby offering some all-time sour-faced line-readings and indulging in some hilarious physical comedy. Keep a literal head’s up for the lamb-chop scene.
According to the film’s producers, there is a four-hour-plus cut of Napoleon sitting on someone’s hard drive, just waiting to be unleashed upon the world – a wonderful thing to hear, given that Scott’s 157-minute theatrical version feels like the shortest long movie of the year. But as it stands, Napoleon feels like the generous and true act of a giant – a cinematic general, in other words, who leaves it all on the field so that his side can live to see another day.