Napoleon (R, 158 mins). In cinemas now.
Directed by Ridley Scott.
Ridley Scott’s version of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life story may not be awfully close to the truth, but it’s a very good 19th-century drama indeed, focused on an exceptional military leader whose wife was his best friend even after their divorce, then had a second wife who bore him the son and heir he so desperately wanted, along with a mother who must be obeyed and a massive love of France.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Napoleon, portraying him as a complex man, leading his armies calmly and assuredly into famous battles: Toulon, Alexandria, Austerlitz, and then misguidedly invading Russia, occupying Moscow, already on fire.
His downfall, sealed at Waterloo, had begun.
It’s partly David Scarpa’s script, but mainly the relationship between Napoleon and Josephine (a luminous Vanessa Kirby) that holds the film together; Napoleon admits he is nothing without her.
Although she’s unfaithful to him, she needs him too, loves him, and wants the respectability she has when married to him.
Interestingly, Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, before he crowns himself emperor of France, is self-effacing and almost too subdued, only showing any vigour when wooing Josephine and when going into battle.
A powerful mutual attraction without even an exchange of names brings uniformed Napoleon and Josephine together at a party.
She takes the next step soon afterwards, sending a messenger to ask him to use his rank to reclaim her dead disgraced husband’s sword, impounded after he’d been imprisoned.
He willingly, almost obediently, brings it to her residence, where she hooks him and reels him in.
Napoleon is a gargantuan film, starting out with scenes of the French Revolution’s angry crowd which culminate in the beheading of Marie Antoinette, and moving through the end of Robespierre to the closeness of Napoleon and his brother Lucien (Matthew Needham), his two marriages, most significantly the one to Josephine, a coronation, a divorce, the death of Josephine, the unseating of Louis XVIII and then finally to Napoleon’s surrender to an imperious Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett) and death in exile on the island of Saint Helena.
There’s a good contrast between the Duke of Wellington, a pompous, entitled person, and Napoleon, who, in this iteration of the character, humbly calls himself a peacemaker and seems oblivious to defeat.
For the impressive battle scenes, particularly the icy catastrophe of Austerlitz, there were dozens of cameras at work, and dozens of people were responsible for the choreography of horses and riders.
An excellent score contributes to the tumult, along with a vast stunt team and enormous art and makeup departments.
Phoenix plays a Napoleon who can be funny despite being obsessive and jealous; passionate despite being detached.
The only death he really mourns is that of his horse, killed when a cannonball blasts the animal’s chest to smithereens.
Although more than three million French soldiers died during the Napoleonic Wars, the film shows Napoleon as a hero, a tragic one, and an outstanding Frenchman.
The first person to bring an image or hard copy of this review to Starlight Cinema Taupō qualifies for a free ticket to Napoleon. Movies are rated: Avoid, Recommended, Highly recommended and Must see.
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