Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon’ offers both spectacle and emotional complexities

napoleon review

Joaquin Phoenix, in “Napoleon.”

Not every battlefield can be seen.

Some are the private war zones where we fight friends and family and lovers. Some are the darker, rockier places where we battle our own urges and insecurities. But even when the conflicts are invisible, the pain — and casualties — are real.

And “Napoleon,” opening Nov. 22, is an epic examination of warfare — both public, and private.

Director Ridley Scott has always been a terrific maker of images. The steamy cityscapes of “Blade Runner,” the chest-bursting birth in “Alien,” the Ford Thunderbird hurtling into empty air in “Thelma & Louise” — those are more than memories. They are visual exclamations, iconic moments that define a movie.

But Scott’s also always been a keen observer of people, too, their moods and motives. And while it doesn’t always translate into dramatic visuals, the clash between strong women and (at best) uncomprehending men is the engine that drives many of his films. (“Alien” would have been a lot shorter if everyone simply had listened to Ripley.)

“Napoleon” is about the Emperor of France, yes, a military genius whose ambition led him to dominate much of Europe (and bring that continent 20 years of carnage, leaving millions dead). But it’s also about an insecure and tongue-tied man who found it easier to win on the battlefield than to conquer his own fears. It’s about his own emotional wars.

Of course, it’s always spectacle that grabs our attention and Scott doesn’t disappoint. He begins his film with Napoleon Bonaparte, a young officer, watching Marie Antoinette’s procession to the guillotine. He wasn’t there in real life. However we’re not dealing with facts here, but images: the queen’s stoic beauty, shouting peasants throwing cabbages, her bloody head displayed to cheers.

Scott is clearly no fan of the Revolution.

Neither, it seems, is Napoleon. Although his military successes win him a place in the new government, he outmaneuvers his colleagues, and rivals, and quickly consolidates his power. By 1804, he has literally crowned himself Emperor of France — and his dreams of dominion go far beyond that nation’s borders.

And the wars he will wage give rise to further cinematic spectacles. Bloody battles in which men and horses are mere cannon fodder, heads and limbs flying off in all directions. A wintry massacre with troops fleeing across a frozen lake, until the ice gives way, and the screen becomes an awful, abstract arrangement in black and white and red.

Vanessa Kirby in “Napoleon.”

Blander hues abound inside, where Napoleon and the Empress Joséphine are locked in their own struggle for dominance, yet in these battles there is never a clear winner or loser. Deeply insecure, Napoleon demands her complete and obedient submission; Joséphine, the consummate survivor, knows that as long as she denies him that victory, she holds the ultimate power. They’re locked together in love now, but it’s a bond that chafes, and over the years they will each test the strength of its links.

It’s a fresh look at the legendary love affair between Napoleon and Joséphine — passion as co-dependency. And Scott’s innovations don’t end there.

The character of the moody Emperor has always attracted Method actors (Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger both embodied him in the past) but Joaquin Phoenix’s startling performance here is even more deeply personal, eccentric, unexpected. He slips into silent stares. He crawls on the floor like an animal. He yells at an English diplomat — “You think you’re so great because you have boats!” — like a frustrated child.

Which, in this telling, he’s sometimes shown to be — perhaps unfairly. There always has been a snobby English tendency to find Napoleon — that little Corsican — as faintly ridiculous. Occasionally, “Napoleon” gives in to that prejudice. He’s not just ruthless and dictatorial and fickle and vain. He’s also — oh dear — rather common, as well. Not really one of us, now, is he?

But that also makes him human, and that humanity is only by Vanessa Kirby’s achingly real performance as the complicated Joséphine. When she meets Napoleon, she is a painfully pragmatic widow with two small children; she needs a powerful protector, and she needs to hold onto him any way she can. However, Kirby shows not only the steel of her determination, but the powerful effects of his devotion; she gives in, despite herself, and once she truly falls in love, she plummets.

A battle scene from “Napoleon.”

“Napoleon” is slightly over 2½ hours and, frankly, it’s a movie that could have — should have — stretched to 3. That some of the global politicking of the era is glossed over, is understandable; that Napoleon’s own complex politics are ignored leaves more of a hole.

How did a man who fought for a republic of equal citizens then calmly seat himself on a throne? Guarantee freedom of worship but demand censorship of the press? Bring justice to the legal system but reinstitute slavery in the colonies? Napoleon both inspired and disappointed a world (Beethoven, who had initially dedicated his Third Symphony to him, felt particularly betrayed). That internal conflict needed dramatizing, too.

But the film still soars without it. The performances are wonderful (Rupert Everett is particularly delicious as an egotistical Duke of Wellington). The visuals, as in any Scott film, are transporting. And the battles onscreen — whether on the frozen fields outside Moscow or in the overheated boudoir of a Parisian palace — pull us along inexorably, from triumph to stalemate to disaster to final, exhausted peace.

For more on “Napoleon,” visit napoleon.movie.


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