Ridley Scott and David Scarpa’s epic ‘historical’ movie dives full-throttle into the life of Emperor Bonaparte, with superb battle scenes, the destruction of part of the British navy (complete with turning one into a fire ship!) astonishing calvary charges, and extremely angry ministers/deputies being shut and corralled into buildings.
It’s the kind of movie that cinemas and movie theatres were invented for. It’s BIG! Martin Cripps score is stirring and very worth staying at the end for. The uniforms are gorgeous and I enjoyed seeing all the ministers and representatives in their strange Roman-ish togas. Gorgeous too is Napoleon’s court as he crowns himself and then Josephine. It’s lavish and beautiful.
Though I’m sure he’s not short in real life, Joaquin Phoenix conjures up the outsider Corsican and brilliant strategist in impressive hats. He’s also enthralled to older women — his Mum (Sinead Cusack) and Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), aristocratic widow and mother. Though she’s not given a lot to do beyond look gorgeous, and pout when Napoleon cruelly and publicly shames her about not giving him a son (again), Vanessa Kirby navigates the limited material on offer to create a full character out of it. We learn more about her through her pointed silences, loss of boundaries and tears — when caught out taking a lover during the Egyptian campaign, both she and Napoleon are in tears. He tries to get her to self-criticise — she bests him at his own game. Strangely they are also a team, schmoozing with aplomb!
Unlikely, though legendary, it’s implied that Napoleon abandons ongoing world domination to sort out domestic affairs (literally). Or perhaps there were no more pyramids to take pot shots at! For all this myth making, there are so lovely moments after Napoleon has divorced Josephine and still keeps visiting and writing to his ‘friend’, even bringing his new son by his new wife to see her, and it’s implied that he flees confinement on Elba to return to her. Though apart, they both seem to really care for each other.
Josephine’s children are side-lined, appearing only in a couple of scenes; as are most of Napoleon's many siblings. There is a strong relationship with one brother on screen. We do see his obsession for Josephine and power, his sensitivity — there are a lot of tears; the love that ordinary soldiers and even enemy midshipman have for him and the respect that Wellington (Rupert Everett) and Napoleon have for each other.
On the other side, we see the lack of boundaries — touting for wife number 2 with Russia (one sister is 15!) and pretty petite Austrian princess Duchess Marie-Louise (Anna Mawn) is delivered up to make the desired son. Horrified reactions to the proposals by Russia and Austria are funny.
Whilst we see the instability — shifting between republic and King; the wild changes in power; the turning of canons upon King supporting citizens — I’m not sure we see why Napoleon was such a threat to world powers — apart from he wanted to marry their sisters/daughters, and would sleep in your bed and sit on your throne (Moscow), and loot your cultural objects (Egypt). His rapid rise to power from nothing is hinted at, but we don’t see much of this in action. Though the coup scene where he seizes power is dramatic — who can get out of the meeting house first and get the army on side?
Impressive too are the sweeping battle scenes —the terror and audacity of firing British canons at their own tall ships; the shooting at and horrible results of being shot on ice at Austerlitz; secret raids (having scoped the sweary Brits out) at Toulon; the bravery of the Brits and their allies keeping formation as they’re encircled and trampled by French cavalry at Waterloo. Moreover how heroic cavalry were to launch themselves at infantry. There is the sumptuous eerie silence of Napoleon entering abandoned Moscow and then seeing it alight by Muscovites, the French army struggling on into the Russian winter to their ultimate defeat; the unceasing rain before Waterloo. The cinematography is proper old school — this is historical epic with a capital H and at times we’re dragged with gusto into the action — the camera is thumped against at points. Limited CGI too!
Real stars here are the horses — plunging through troops shooting at them; used in pairs for scouting activities; skittering across and plunging into ice when it’s shot out from under them; blown up right under Napoleon in battle. I just don’t know how Scott did it — the battle scenes are tremendous, viscerally drawing us into the fight and the bravery of the armies.
Intriguing moments are the trauma of having to publicly divorce Josephine for the sake of his dynasty, as well as seeing all the Allied leaders gathered with Wellington — just like George IV’s gallery of Waterloo worthies at Windsor Castle — brought to life! We also get to go to a survivors’ ball — held by those who’d survived the Terror — complete with fashionably cropped hair and neck enhancing chokers.
Opening the movie is a magnificent Catherine Walker as Marie Antionette heading to the guillotine. In a wordless sequence she conjures up sympathy, pushed humiliatingly into the execution block. (Although her widow’s cap is missing and we get her white frizzled hair instead).
We end with Napoleon’s last words and the human cost of his victories. A wonder too that this was produced under COVID protocols too.
For the history behind the movie: https://youtu.be/BuVIOqf4WHI?si=-w6hhwV0ULsUq-tD