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Film Review: Napoleon (15). By Harry Mount

Arts | By Harry Mount

Napoleon branding: vegan Joaquin Phoenix’s hat was made of Ugandan tree bark




The main criticism of Sir Ridley Scott’s Napoleon has so far been about the historical blunders.

Napoleon’s soldiers didn’t shout ‘Vive la France!’ in an American accent. Marie Antoinette didn’t have gorgeous long hair when her head was chopped off. And Napoleon didn’t bombard the pyramids.

None of that kind of thing matters much if a film is very good. No one gets cross with Russell Crowe speaking in an Australian accent in Scott’s Gladiator, because it’s such a marvellous film.

But Napoleon just doesn’t have the wit and pace of Gladiator – or Scott’s Robin Hood. Those films were witty, moving and thrilling and played around with our expectations of a historical epic.

Napoleon is just a little bit too straight-epic. Writer David Scarpa’s screenplay is flat and uninspired, where there is so much room for turn-of-the-19th-century grandiloquence colliding with 21st-century quick-wittedness.

It’s a shame, because so much of it is so good. Joaquin Phoenix is a convincing, understated actor. His Napoleon is jaundiced, dirty and troubled -– a master of military tactics, prepared to lose thousands of men with a single weary approval of yet another onslaught.

His American accent doesn’t matter the way it would if he were playing Wellington – in fact played by an entertaining Rupert Everett, screwing up his rubbery lips into a scornful moue as he orchestrates the Waterloo victory.

The best things in the film are the triumphantly gory battle scenes. For all the factual errors, Scott hasn’t dumbed down the history very much. He’s managed to squeeze five mammoth battles – Toulon, Marengo, Austerlitz, Borodino and Waterloo – into 158 minutes, which only occasionally pall.

A full four-hour director’s cut will be released on Apple TV+. What a good idea for all over-long films. Let the director indulge his ego on the small screen at torturous length – and give us a taut, edited version on the big screen.

The Battle of Austerlitz in particular is a cinematic triumph, with Napoleon’s cannonballs smashing through the ice, drowning the Russian soldiers in their own blood and freezing water.

Scott also has an alluring way with CGI, taking the real sets of great country houses and adding in fantastic, fake frills. Architectural historians will spot Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor’s baroque Blenheim, topped with Russian onion domes to recreate Moscow. Lincoln Cathedral stands in for Notre-Dame, Boughton for Malmaison, where the divorced Empress Joséphine is exiled to after failing to provide Napoleon with an heir.

Vanessa Kirby, Princess Margaret in The Crown, is strangely convincing as Joséphine, despite playing her as a half-Cockney, half-posh, spiky-haired punk. She is filthily erotic in her come-hither dialogue with Napoleon – ‘If you look down, you’ll see a surprise – and you’ll always want it.’

Napoleon never said, ‘Not tonight, Joséphine.’ It was a later fabrication. And Scarpa doesn’t include the line in his script. He should have – given Kirby’s smouldering sex appeal, the line would have assumed extra, crazy, self-denying power.

Scott’s aim is clear and understandable – to lay a tragic love story up against the epic battles.

The battles convince. The love story doesn’t. Where Russell Crowe’s furious quest to avenge his family’s murder in Gladiator was electrically gripping, you just don’t feel engaged with Napoleon and Joséphine, despite the excellent acting.

Given Scott’s decision to play around with the history, he and Scarpa could also have played around with the dreary script to give the love story poignancy and magic. There is neither.

This story was from January 2024 issue. Subscribe Now