Ridley Scott, the filmmaker behind Napoleon, is a European. Of course, the veteran producer-director, a native of South Shields, in the Tyne and Wear district of northeast England, is as English as it is possible to be. But for all that, the indefatigable 85-year-old Scott has something in common with all the Celts, Saxons, Angles, Jutes, Picts, Vikings, Normans and innumerable other ethnic groups who made England, and the present-day United Kingdom, their home—they’re all at least nominally European. Numerous wars have been fought over the issue.
That’s where Napoleon comes in. Scott’s 56th directorial effort tells the story of another European, a 19th-century Corsican French warrior-monarch whose name still resonates in world history two centuries later, for better or worse.
Scott’s Napoleon is a rousing, red-blooded experience, an old-fashioned—and emotionally relatively uncomplicated—historical epic outfitted with modern production techniques and filled to overflowing with battles, intrigues and the scandalous relationship between former artillery officer Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) and his restless wife, Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby).
In Scott’s film, with a screenplay by frequent collaborator David Scarpa (All the Money in the World, The Man in the High Castle), Napoleon works his way up from an army captain in league with the French Revolution, luridly depicted in the film’s opening scene, to the rank of brigadier general—and eventually, Emperor of France—thanks to his seemingly unquenchable thirst for bloody warfare. Toulon, the corridors of Paris during the Reign of Terror, Egypt, Italy, the Austrian Empire, Russia—Napoleon and his troops subjugate the population everywhere they march, up until that nasty business in Waterloo. CGI soldiers’ heads and horses’ necks explode under mortar fire, and regimes go up in flames.
Meanwhile, the conqueror falls in love with Joséphine de Beauharnais (Kirby), the young widow of a guillotined aristocrat. She’s a post-revolutionary party girl not entirely smitten by the coarse Corsican and his battering-ram style of sexual intercourse, but willing to overlook some matters while living in some of the continent’s most lavish houses. Director Scott digs down deep into his bag of extravagant European settings here. Even in the wake of House of Gucci, All the Money in the World, Hannibal and The Duellists, he apparently hasn’t yet exhausted the supply. Despite centuries of destruction, Europe is still remarkably well equipped with fancy real estate.
Phoenix may not be every moviegoer’s first choice for the title role, especially for those who winced at his performance as the cruel Roman emperor, Commodus, in Gladiator. And yet the actor who starred in Joker and Two Lovers arguably deserves the role of a violent megalomaniac, so all is forgiven. Never mind that a few of his line readings are stiff, and that Napoleon’s childish friskiness in one or two scenes seems odd. Let’s just say that Phoenix cuts a fine figure in the saddle, waving a saber, and let it go at that.
Kirby’s impersonation of Joséphine is another matter entirely. From the very first glimpse of her as the merry widow at a cocktail party, she’s a beguiling combination of the bewildered coquette and the poule de luxe every time Darusz Wolski’s camera swings her way. Joséphine looks as authentic in her empire-waist gowns as Phoenix does in his cockade-bedecked uniforms. Kudos likewise to Paul Rhys, as diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, and Edouard Philipponat, as Alexander, Tsar of Russia, a pair of dealmakers in the Age of Enlightenment.
Volumes have been written about Scott and the lasting effect his visual sense has had on contemporary big-screen entertainment. Napoleon belongs in the front rank of his creations, alongside such landmarks as Blade Runner, Alien and Black Hawk Down. For its thrilling battle scenes, its ironic characterizations of the revolutionaries who became their own special brand of aristocracy and for the essential European-ness of the project itself, this glittering, sweaty panorama of antique world history should be essential viewing.
Playing at Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol and streaming on Apple TV+.