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17 November 2023

Ridley Scott’s fast and furious Napoleon biopic

In this ruthlessly efficient and entertaining epic, starring Joaquin Phoenix, facts are beside the point.

By David Sexton

Ridley Scott outraged French sensibilities about Napoleon in advance of anyone seeing his new film. In an interview with Empire magazine, he said: “I compare him with Alexander the Great, Adolf Hitler, Stalin. Listen, he’s got a lot of bad shit under his belt.” Scott, 85, is always flamboyant and incisive. Sensitive, constrained by the facts, not so much.

This Napoleon, which begins with him as a young officer witnessing the guillotining of big-haired Marie Antoinette in 1793 (he didn’t, she was shorn) and ends with him falling sideways on the island of St Helena in 1821 as the ghost of his first wife Joséphine whispers erotically in his ear, is highly entertaining. The two hours and 37 minutes fly past and leave you excited for the four-hour version streaming on Apple+ next year.

The big battle scenes – Toulon, Marengo, Austerlitz, Borodino, Waterloo – are all spectacularly staged productions by this great dictator of cinema, using both real sets with real troops, and CGI. Scott storyboards everything himself (“Ridleygrams”) before shooting. That clear visualisation ensures that the most tumultuous and immersive scenes, shot from multiple angles, are clearly articulated so that the narrative is easy to follow. A thunderous soundtrack bowls us along.

The political scenes are also ruthlessly clarified; all those involved speak almost invariably in explicit situational bullet points, so that we may know where we are. Scott’s films are always in motion, going forward: nothing is ever beside the point. You have to admire the panache. Scott has given us the epic film about Napoleon that has defeated so many other directors lured by the subject, not least Stanley Kubrick.

There are sacrifices to be made for such an achievement, of course – historical fidelity, basic period accuracy, complexity, intelligence. Scott and his writer David Scarpa have reduced the story to the simplest template: Napoleon was a military genius but an abject lover. When not on the battlefield, he couldn’t stay away from Joséphine (far from the view of Andrew Roberts in his magisterial biography). There’s no mention of Napoleon as reformer, legislator, moderniser.

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The casting is ideal for this fantasy. Joaquin Phoenix, 49 (a year younger than Napoleon at death), presents a cruel public face as the emperor: impassive, derisive, devilish; but in private he collapses into snivelling supplication and sexual ineptitude. Scott has said that, excellent as Phoenix may have been in Gladiator, it was when he saw him in Joker that he realised he was perfect for the part. “This little demon is Napoleon,” he thought, and stayed true to that – let’s call it insight – throughout the film. The silhouette, after all, remains the most recognisable in the world, whoever is portraying it.

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Vanessa Kirby, 35, of The Crown plays Joséphine, who was in fact six years older than Napoleon rather than 14 years younger – but hey, movies – as a contemporary femme fatale. At their first interview, she does a Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct on him. “If you look down, you’ll see a surprise – and you’ll always want it.” He takes a peek. And it’s the same treat that she promises him in heaven as he dies too: “I will show you when you arrive – come to me, Napoleon, and let’s try this again.”

Napoleon tries to master her, returning in fury from the Egyptian campaign after hearing she has a lover. He forces her to say he’s the most important thing in the world and without him she is nothing. Next time, she turns the tables, making him say: “I am just a brute that is nothing without you.” Hardly tiresomely ambiguous.

It’s for Joséphine as well as France that Napoleon makes his epic march back from Elba here, arriving at Château de Malmaison only to learn of her death and break down in tears. In boring fact, he was informed on Elba and reported to have said only: “Ah! She is happy now.” But drama rules. Wellington himself (Rupert Everett, sneerily aristocratic) comes aboard the Bellerophon to tell Napoleon he will end his days on St Helena. It didn’t happen? Scott: “When I have issues with historians, I ask: ‘Excuse me, mate, were you there? No? Well, shut the f**k up then.’”

So here’s Napoleon, beaten by a Brit again. Sorry, France. The film was almost entirely made in the UK too, at Blenheim Palace (Versailles), Boughton Manor (Malmaison) and Lincoln Cathedral (Notre Dame), with rainy Berkshire serving for Waterloo. In the most exciting battle recreated here, Austerlitz, the Russian cavalry, shelled by the French, fall through the ice of a frozen lake, seen from underneath, horses plunging, corpses drifting, blood swirling, all created in a whopping water tank. All it lacks is a great big shark.

“Napoleon” is in cinemas from 22 November.

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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style