By James Murphy
Joaquin Phoenix plays Gladiator director Ridley Scott’s emperor again in Napoleon in a hefty cannonball of a biopic which, like the diminutive dictator, has inspired armies of critics and plaudits on both sides of the English channel.
The French are not amused by Scott and Phoenix’s Napoleon: they won’t eat this cake either. It could be because, while the actors playing the lowly Parisian servants deliver their few lines in thick French accents, Phoenix has gone the Sean Connery/Tom Cruise route of “I’m a star with an iconic voice/I’ll speak how I want”. For the history buffs, then, Napoleon becomes like a Boeuf Bourguignon with a side serving of McDonald’s French fries.
If you want an entirely faithful re-enactment of the Corsican noble’s 61 battles, many intrigues and intricate battle strategies, then your ambition is greater than Napoleon’s. There are limits to how much ground that can be marched over within two-and-a-half hours. While the battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo are huge in scale and cinematographically spectacular- Scott has loved exploding chests ever since Alien- they don’t sprawl in length like a Game of Thrones season finale. If you want the detail, read War and Peace.
For Scott’s spin on the tale told by Tolstoy is the exploration of the bed chamber dynamics between Napoleon and Josephine, played vividly and enchantingly by Vanessa Kirby. While Kirby is rumoured to be cast as the Invisible Woman in Marvel’s Fantastic Four, here she’s the most visible woman in Napoleonic France; perhaps the only person who could make the leader of men kneel.
Aside from the age-old message of absolute power corrupting absolutely, Napoleon is also an exploration of what motivates men to climb the ramparts, to charge headlong into musket fire, to overthrow monarchs and conquer foreign lands: is it destiny calling, or the siren song of a beautiful lover?. Perhaps if that mystery could just be unravelled, then wars and abuses of power would cease?
Unfortunately, though, Scott doesn’t necessarily arrive at any profound truths or stark epiphanies. Napoleon is not revolutionary; it’s post-revolutionary. It’s mostly mindless lust and blood lust, as the oppressed become the oppressors. It’s this last point that is most prescient for our modern age.