It will come as a surprise to absolutely no one that the reunion of director Ridley Scott and “Napoleon’s” leading man, Joaquin Phoenix, is a rich, layered, and satisfying offering. There is alchemy at work that transfixes the audience as much as any of the epic battle sequences.
Directed and produced by Scott, “Napoleon” is based on the true story of Napoleon Bonaparte, played by Phoenix. The historical drama has two main focuses: the French leader’s rise to power and his turbulent relationship with his first wife, Empress Joséphine, played by Vanessa Kirby.
It’s fair to say that, on occasion, period pieces can be dry and inaccessibly scholastic. However, Napoleon’s first big selling point is that while it adheres to the real-world timeline of events, it is possible for someone who knows next to nothing about Napoleon and his legacy to take a seat and be instantly drawn into the proceedings. While debates will no doubt rage in certain circles about the historical accuracy of what is on the screen, and there is some artistic license at play, Napoleon never feels anything less than authentic, or certainly authentic enough.
As can be deduced from the synopsis, there is little origin story for Phoenix’s Napoleon as the film starts with him already well on the way to working his way up the social and military ladder. It doesn’t take long for Scott to thrust the audience into the film’s first battle, the siege of Toulon; while one of the smaller scale battle sequences, there is a blistering ferocity to it that is quite shocking. Bonaparte’s horse, taking a cannonball to its chest, causing its insides to blast outwards with bloody gusto, led to loud exclamations of shock. Scott does not hold back, and as the film progresses, the battles get more intense, larger in scale, and more graphic. The horrors of war in Europe in the 1800s are unrelenting and haunting, brought home even more by dynamic sound design that makes your bones rumble.
While the entire film is shot impeccably by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, a frequent Scott collaborator, the execution of the battle scenes is phenomenal. From broad pans to close-ups of faces, often what is conveyed needs no exposition. Culminating with the final battle at Waterloo, they swell throughout the film, each delivering an increasing degree of detailed ferocity that takes your breath away. Coupled with impeccable editing by Claire Simpson and Sam Restivo, the sequences pack visceral power. There’s also an earthiness to the visual tone that grounds the whole film remarkably well but never mutes the pops of color and shine brought to the table in the pomp and circumstance of high society decadence or military finery. The construction and framing are often quite striking.
Napoleon and Joséphine’s relationship puts the toxic in intoxicating. When their eyes first meet, he is an increasingly decorated and powerful man on the rise. She is a woman trying to regain her position in society after her politician husband was executed and she was thrown in jail in the French Revolution. Even before she has said a word, Kirby’s presence is striking; there’s a fire and edge to her underneath an exterior that mixes fresh out of the clink 1700s aristocrat with ’80s era Pat Benatar.
While Napoleon never breaks character and steps out of its period settings, there are certainly moments where the proceedings have an air of modernity. The relationship between the unfaithful and co-dependent couple is where the audience might get a sense, especially when it comes to their couple’s carnal antics. There is a genuine edge of humor to specific moments, such as Napoleon’s non-verbal and somewhat childlike tantrum when he wants to have sex with a freshly dressed Joséphine. Equally, the bored disassociation on her face as he barely tolerates him rutting away is somewhat comical. There’s also a sadomasochistic tone to how the pair punish each other before begging for clemency. While the kink might not be historically accurate, it’s undoubtedly a very effective way to highlight just how awful both of them are in their own way.
Phoenix’s deeply narcissistic Napoleon is a revelation. Wearing an expression that sometimes barely changes, his face either conveys a cold disconnection and indifference or a wistful yearning. There is absolutely no doubt that his petulance and insecurity equally match the power and bravado the French leader presents. Phoenix’s powerhouse performance flicks between nasty and needy and broken and impenetrable with such ease that he gives Napoleon this alluringly psychotic edge that it is impossible to take your eyes off him. There’s also a fractured softness where he gets the audience to feel for the leader when his own arrogance leads to his downfall. Both Phoenix and Kirby devour David Scarpa‘s rich and impeccably crafted script, swirling it in their mouths before spitting it out like they’ve tasted a fine wine. It’s tight, clean, and peppered with little nuggets that land flawlessly in the moment.
While the supporting cast largely get their own moments to shine, their spoils of war, for want of a better phrase, Rupert Everett stands out as Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. His hand-in-glove casting as Napoleon’s adversary at Waterloo, and the man who ultimately beats then exiles the Frenchman Emperor, delivers a pitch-perfect balance to Phoenix’s performance. It’s a delicious turn. What is also worth noting here is the decision for the actors to use their natural accents. There are no attempts to add any suspect French or other European lilts. Whoever made that creative call made the right decision.
“Napoleon” is one of the handful of movies this year that benefits from being seen on a big screen. It’s an epic crowd-pleaser with a stellar cast who deliver top-notch performances and Scott’s best work since “The Martian.” [B]
“Napoleon” hits theaters on November 22.