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  • Benjamin May

Napoleon (2023) Review

Do films about figures from reality need to be entirely factual? The fractious reaction to Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon’ seems to suggest that some, at least, think they do. However, in his book ‘Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia,’ Michael Korda posits that criticizing a film- in his case David Lean’s epic ‘Lawrence of Arabia’- for a lack of historical accuracy “misses the point [as] the object was to produce, not a faithful docudrama that would educate the audience, but a hit picture.”


A hit picture ‘Napoleon’ surely is. Retelling the events of the titular Emperor’s life from 1793 to his death in 1821, the film is an action-packed, frequently funny epic holding great entertainment value. Focusing on Bonaparte’s relationship with his wife Josephine, Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa contend that she was the great woman behind the great man, as it were, and the driving force behind his actions.

Despite the fact that the film is enjoyable, it is this last point that is problematic. Scarpa’s screenplay doesn’t show us how Josephine inspires Napoleon, nor how she contributes to his military prowess. It is stated that she does so numerous times, but never shown in detail, beyond her giving him the odd compliment. Although she tells Napoleon that he is the greatest man in the world, and that she loves him more than anything, this doesn’t really explain how she motivated him to glory and aided him militarily.


Conversely, considering Scarpa and Scott wanted to portray Josephine as a strong, influential presence in Napoleon’s life, they could have included some scenes from history where the real Josephine showed her power and intelligence. She was- in reality- a patron of the arts, while her intervention probably saved the life of Madame Germaine de Stael, a fierce critic of Napoleon's. This could have demonstrated how she was a valuable partner for Napoleon, as well as an intelligent, independent woman. By ultimately reducing her to a mere love interest, the film misses the opportunity to explore her complex personality and relationship with Bonaparte. By the time the credits have rolled, we haven’t really learnt anything about her; nor do we find her interesting or compelling.

On the other hand, Scott and Scarpa’s examination of Napoleon’s rise to and fall from power is thrilling and engaging, while their portrayal of the man himself is nuanced. A person of massive ego and ambition, their version of Bonaparte is also something of a wit, despite being brutish and heavy-handed. He is a multidimensional personality, with traits both laudable and deplorable: a realistic, flawed person whose thirst for power could never be quenched.


As we follow on his journey, we are treated to spectacle after spectacle, from the beheading of Marie Antoinette to the carnage of the Battle of Austerlitz. Full of political intrigue, as well as gloriously gory scenes of warfare, the narrative consistently excites. The film also has a surprising amount of comedy, which adds to the charm and appeal the real Napoleon must have had, while also making proceedings more enjoyable.

Scott has always had a fantastic eye for visuals; a fact proven again here. Alongside director of photography Dariusz Wolski, Scott makes the film appear truly epic in scale and scope. Utilising multiple cameras, intricate, contrasting lighting and juxtaposing colours, they enhance the film’s tone and impact, while also creating a visually stunning, immersive film. Their use of close-up lenses, high-angle views and warm, soft lighting generates a sense of intimacy when Napoleon is with Josephine, while their employment of wide-angle lenses, low-angle views and bright lighting makes Napoleon seems all the more powerful on the battlefield.


On that point, Scott’s handling of the battle sequences is enthralling and gory. He captures the hectic madness of warfare astutely, while the violence is hard-hitting and palpable. The Battle of Austerlitz is particularly memorable, shot with an artistic touch that makes the gruesome scenes therein all the more poignant. In its scenes of battle, it is far more realistic and closer in tone to Scott’s previous ‘The Duellists’ than ‘Gladiator,’ making it more compelling.

Furthermore, the set decoration and costume design are texturally rich and lavish. Throughout, Arthur Max’s production design is visceral and detailed, while also appearing fairly period accurate. From the bedazzled palaces full of ornate furnishings, to the soldiers’ decrepit tents, the locations are convincing and atmospheric. In addition, Martin Phipps’ stirring score adds drama to proceedings, while his inclusion of songs from the period compounds the realism of the venture. Moreover, the film is generally well edited and has a good, steady pace- although repeatedly cutting to white to mark a scene transition seems a cliched technique far below Scott’s level.


Joaquin Phoenix stars as Napoleon, opposite Vanessa Kirby as Josephine. Versatile and charismatic, Phoenix delivers a performance of wit, intelligence and strength. His Bonaparte is compelling and captivating: a more grounded character than we have seen represented before in cinema, be it Rod Steiger in ‘Waterloo’ or Ian Holm in ‘Napoleon and Love.’ Kirby gives a solid performance, but there isn't much for her to work with in the face of Scarpa's scant characterization. Despite her best efforts, she fades into Phoenix's shadow- a shame, considering her talent.

Alongside them, Tahar Rahim does fine work as Paul Barras, an early supporter of Napoleon’s, as does Mark Bonnar as Jean-Andoche Junot, one of his Generals and advisors. Miles Jupp and Anna Mawn both shine in the all too small roles of Emperor Francis II of Austria and Archduchess Marie-Louise, Napoleon's second wife, respectively, while Rupert Everett is delightfully prim and proper as the Duke of Wellington.


In conclusion, Ridley Scott’s epic ‘Napoleon’ is a solid piece of entertainment. Although questionable in terms of historical accuracy, it is enjoyable and thrilling: does it really matter if some details are fabricated or rearranged? Scott wasn’t trying to make a docudrama, but a hit movie, and he has largely succeeded. Despite a dearth of characterization in regard to Josephine, the narrative is engaging and the central character compelling. Featuring lush visuals, pulse-pounding battle sequences and a brilliant performance from star Joaquin Phoenix, this film about a small Emperor is a great success.

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