“I found the crown of France just lying in the gutter, so I picked it up with the tip of my sword.” – Joaquin Phoenix as “Napoleon”
What a bloody fool, that Napoleon.
As you’d expect, Ridley Scott’s sweeping, decades-spanning and magnificently filmed epic “Napoleon” is a stylized and violent interpretation of the life and times of one of the most famous and infamous military commanders and political leaders history has ever known — but it’s also a surprisingly funny indictment of a sniveling brute of a man who is utterly unaware of his shortcomings, so to speak.
When a riveting, screen-chewing, always watchable Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon says with a straight face that he is not a man given to insecurities — well, that’s just hilarious. It’s Napoleon’s insecurity, and his narcissism, and his petulance, and his quenchless thirst for glory and victory that drive this man to seek out war after war after war, with almost no thought given to the thousands upon thousands of lives that are lost in the process. He’s an 18th century mobster in a bicorne hat.
The great and prolific Scott (“Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down”), now 85, and screenwriter David Scarpa stay faithful to the historical timeline over the 158-minute running time (things actually move FAST), as we follow events from the Reign of Terror in the early 1790s through Napoleon’s death in fetid exile in 1821. But if you’re looking for painstaking devotion to accuracy, you’re in the wrong theater.
We’ve got the American Joaquin Phoenix playing the Corsican-born Napoleon; a Brit (Vanessa Kirby) as Joséphine; a French-Finnish actor (Édouard Philipponnat) in the role of Alexander I, the tsar of Russia, and a number of British actors playing French officials. There are no subtitles, no attempts by the leads in the cast to affect French accents. (Thank goodness.)
Oh, and in this telling of the tale, a young Napoleon was in the crowd when Marie Antoinette was guillotined, and the film also gives life to the old folk tale that has Napoleon’s troops firing cannons on the Great Pyramids during the 1798 invasion of Egypt. (Spoiler alert: Never happened.)
As the closing title cards note, Napoleon presided over more than 60 battles, a half-dozen which are depicted here, with Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski often using widescreen longshots to depict the utter chaos and madness of war. We also get some of Scott’s trademark visceral imagery, as in a scene of the 24-year-old Napoleon’s early signature victory at Toulon in which a cannonball strikes Napoleon’s horse in the chest, sending the poor beast down while Napoleon struggles to free himself and rejoin the battle.
“Napoleon” is filled with blood-spattered battle sequences and myriad powerful scenes, from cannons sinking ships to the burning of Moscow — but the film spends nearly as much time on the volatile and complex relationship between Napoleon and Joséphine.
In some of the finest work of Vanessa Kirby’s career, the “Mission: Impossible” regular creates a Joséphine who is a survivor first — a woman who met Napoleon when she was a widowed mother, tolerated Napoleon’s advances and agreed to marry him, almost immediately commenced an affair with a young officer and seems to alternate between despising and truly loving Napoleon. One minute, they’re hungrily tearing at each other under the dining room table; the next, they’re hurling insults at one another. It’s Napoleon and Joséphine in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Casting the offbeat and often brilliant Phoenix, who specializes in playing amoral monsters in films such as Scott’s “Gladiator” and in his Oscar-winning turn in “Joker,” was our strongest indication this Napoleon would be a figure to be feared but also ridiculed. There’s no denying Napoleon’s military and political mastery, as he ruthlessly outfoxes opponents both in the halls of French government and on the battlefields in his voracious quest to expand his empire, but he’s also a socially inept clod and an emotionally immature weasel who scrambles like a slapstick clown during a coup d’état, whining, “They’re trying to kill me!,” and who explodes at a British foe like a child, proclaiming, “You think you’re so great because you have BOATS!” When a Brit snidely refers to Napoleon as a “Corsican thug,” we’ve seen ample evidence to back that up.
“Napoleon” covers a lot of ground, taking us all the way through to the bitter end, after Napoleon has been exiled and briefly returned to power, only to be once again exiled after the Battle of Waterloo. By the time Napoleon has been banished to St. Helena, Joséphine is long gone, and the once powerful leader is a sad and solitary figure. His death as depicted here is a little reminiscent of Don Corleone’s demise in “The Godfather,” but at least Don Corleone was with a grandchild who loved him. We get the sense there was no one left on the planet who had any feelings other than contempt for Napoleon by the time he took his last breath.