You would think pairing director Ridley Scott with Joaquin Phoenix in a film about Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the world’s most notorious and power hungry dictators, would be a sure-fire bullseye. Welp….
When we first meet Napoleon (Phoenix), he’s just witnessed the beheading of Marie Antoinette. It’s a little creative license from writer David Scarpa, yeah, but it was a great way to jump into the film. He’s just about to embark on his first battle and begin his rise as one of the most feared people in the world. He soon meets Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) and marries her, which starts a lifelong partnership of loyalty, love, infidelity and distrust. The film follows his career in battle and power and their personal lives until their deaths.
Scott is a master at battle scenes as you most likely saw in Gladiator and it’s no different here. He and cinematographer Dariusz Wolskind have created some incredible and harrowing visuals, upping the ante for all war scenes moving forward. Phoenix at times barely moves a muscle when negotiating the battlefield from afar; a subtle nod or slow raise of a finger can destroy hundreds of people. War truly is hell here. The film is definitely worth watching just for these alone.
We never really find out why Napoleon was so hell-bent on waging these wars. He loved France, yeah, but was that all? Maybe there are some specific moments or lines that I just didn’t catch but there was nothing that I saw that gave any specific reasons on any motivations for all his death and destruction. And why was he so power hungry? Beats me.
As much as I love Phoenix and pretty much everything that he’s done, his Napoleon as a character was so underplayed. His performance was calm and sedate, except a few fits of anger when Josepine stepped out on him. I wanted so much more from the performance, wanting to know why he chose to do things that he did. It was just incredibly frustrating.
Kirby was terrific. Josephine quickly deduced that she could manipulate Napoleon and work that to her advantage. Did she love him? Or could she not resist that she would use him to create a life that she couldn’t get on her own? Maybe it was the latter and that turned into love?
Rupert Everett turns in a really nice performance as Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington and a leading military figure who fights against Napoleon. He’s posh, disregarding and full of authority and is everything you’d imagine someone at that time of his position to be.
At the end of the film, there’s a scroll that states how many battles and lives were lost during Napoleon’s reign. It’s a massive amount and led me again to think, “Why?” I wish the film let me know.