Only Ridley Scott might have taken on a project as ambitious as Napoleon and avoided embarrassment. If he doesn’t entirely succeed this may be because the subject is simply too vast, too complex, to be crammed into two-and-a-half hours. There are thousands of books on Napoleon (1769-1821), with new ones being published every other month. Every campaign, every letter, every aspect of his private life or personality, has been scrutinised by professional historians and enthusiastic amateurs. Keep reading and rather than becoming more familiar, he only grows more mysterious.
In both public and private, Napoleon is a wealth of contradictions: a hero of the Enlightenment and a relentless war-mongerer; a champion of the Revolution who reinstated an absolute monarchy; an aesthete, who found time to attend operas and plays in the midst of a campaign; a romantic who divorced the only woman he truly loved, in the quest for an heir and strategic alliance; a dedicated technocrat who gave France a code of laws, an education system, an improved postal service, roads and public works, but felt that only martial glory would secure his legacy.
Will the real Napoleon ever stand up? A provincial upstart from Corsica, he never overcame his lingering insecurities, even when all the kings of Europe were cowering at his feet. His brilliance as a tactician and his long record of military success made him acutely resistant to the advice and opinions of his allies. Like the narcissist he was, regardless of what all the world might be telling him, Napoleon would trust his own judgement. What’s amazing is that it worked – allowing him to pull off miraculous victories as a general and a politician – until his ”star” deserted him and all his calls went wrong. To a greater extent than possibly anyone else in history, Napoleon’s rise and fall were entirely self-generated.
As may be imagined, such a figure creates unique challenges for the director who wants to bring him to the screen, and the actor who plays the role. Although there have been numerous cinematic portrayals of Napoleon, the greatest is probably Abel Gance’s silent epic of 1927. The restored version of Gance’s Napoleon clocks in at roughly five hours and leaves off at the point where the young general is establishing his reputation with his early Italian campaigns. Gance originally planned to make six films on Napoleon, but because the first was released at a time when the film industry was switching to ‘talkies’, his masterpiece stumbled at the box office, and the grand scheme lapsed.
In Scott’s Napoleon, the Italian campaigns are disposed of in a sentence. They happened somewhere off camera while we weren’t looking. What we get instead is the ambitious young commander who led the successful seige of Toulon, suddenly challenging for the top job in a post-revoutionary France that badly needs someone to restore order and confidence.
We’ve also skipped Napoleon’s childhood in Corsica, his complex family connections, his time at the military academy, and most of the machinations that would see him installed as one of three Consuls who took control of the country in 1799 in a popular coup d’état. In no time at all, he is supreme ruler. It was a meteoric rise to power, but in this film it happens in the blink of an eye.
The only early campaign we see is his occupation of Egypt, which was generally disastrous but portrayed as a triumph, thanks to Napoleon’s masterly understanding of propaganda. These scenes allow Scott to include sweeping views of the Pyramids, and a strange vignette in which Napoleon goes face-to-face with the mummy of a Pharaoh, who looks suspiciously like Ramses the Great. OK, point taken.
In place of an origin story, we get a whiff of cinematic fantasy, beginning with the beheading of Marie Antoinette, which Napoleon watches impassively, a mere face in the crowd. Historians have been quick to point out he wasn’t in Paris at the time, and to list massive inaccuracies in every detail of the execution. In this preface to the story, Scott and his scriptwriter, David Scarpa, are announcing that they are prepared to take serious liberties with the historical record.
These liberties will continue until the very end, with more campaigns and personal battles being left on the cutting room floor, including the final conflicts following Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign that will lead to his abdication. In this version he’s back from Russia and instantly signing the paper.
The big question is whether these savage cuts and rearrangements ruin the film. Historical purists have already cast their verdict in unequivocal fashion, but Scott and Scarpa might argue they were making a movie rather than a history lesson. They have taken their stand on two points: the major battles that defined Napoleon’s career; and the relationship with his wife, Josephine, that provides the most acute insights into his personality.
There may be nobody in the industry who does battle scenes as brilliantly as Ridley Scott. Napoleon fought 61 major engagements, of which only a handful are covered in this film, but the scenes of Austerlitz and Waterloo are gripping and dramatic. Soldiers are mowed down by cannon balls; men and horses disappear under the ice of a frozen river in billowing clouds of blood. Combatants hack at each other with swords and bayonets or are blown away by close range musket fire. It’s breathless entertainment, and it feels horribly real.
As for the marriage of Napoleon and Josephine, it sets huge challenges for the lead actors, Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby. The first obstacle to credibility is that Josephine was significantly older than Napoleon, who married her when he was 30 years old and she 36. Phoenix at 49, is 13 years older than Kirby. We need to accept that Phoenix’s weatherbeaten countenance will be the same, whether he is supposed to be in his 20s or his 50s. The onus is on the actor to make us forget about age and believe wholeheartedly in his rendition of the character.
Josephine cheated on Napoleon in the very first days of their marriage, acting as if she was very far from being in love with this Corsican “brute”. He was the opposite, declaring himself smitten from their initial meeting. For the rest of their lives, even after he had divorced her for largely political reasons, Napoleon seems to have remained in love with his errant, extravagant wife. The scene where they sit down together upon his return from Egypt, to confront her infidelity, is one of the highlights of the script, as Josephine deftly swings the balance of power in her direction. Whatever she felt at the beginning of the liaison, she and Napoleon will become the firmest of couples, each necessary to the other.
Although the merits of this film are being contested in terms of its historical accuracy, it lives or dies on the performance of Joaquin Phoenix, who bears little physical resemblance to Napoleon. Conscious of the puzzles within the great man’s personality, Phoenix has chosen to play him as an introvert, hiding his own insecurities behind a mask of indifference. He is grumpy and troubled, devoted to his official duties, tortured by a sense of destiny. One imagines the real Napoleon was more mercurial, with the charm and intelligence to get his way in almost every encounter. Nevertheless, Phoenix has pitched his tent on a particular version of Napoleon and remains consistent from start to finish.
We may not like this portrayal of Napoleon, or believe in its accuracy, but as a display of the actor’s craft it’s a job well done.
It’s tempting to say the same about Ridley Scott – a consummate professional among contemporary directors; an old hand, equally at home with a battle scene involving thousands of extras, and an intimate tête-à-tête between husand and wife. For any director, Napoleon might be seen as a lunatic enterprise, as ambitious and overreaching as the emperor’s belief in his own starry destiny. But while it’s impossible not to have reservations about this film, it’s equally impossible to avoid being impressed. Scott has given us a magnificent, flawed epic, with a lead actor strapped into the character like a pilot in his cockpit. I occasionaly gasped when I realised how much history was being omitted but got caught up in the flow as Napoleon surged inexorably towards his fate. Perhaps the best approach may be to forget about the facts and enjoy the sheer effrontery of the fiction.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by David Scarpa
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Rupert Everett, Ben Miles, Paul Rhys, Mark Bonnar, Ludivine Sagnier, Edouard Philipponnat, Anna Mawn, Matthew Needham, Riana Duce, Isabella Brownson, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Miles Jupp
UK/USA, MA 15+, 158 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 2 December, 2023