Napoleon | Review by: Tristan French
When most cinephiles think of modern day historical epics, the films of Ridley Scott often come to mind. Initially known for his contributions to the science-fiction genre helming classics like Blade Runner and Alien, Scott has dedicated the large majority of the second half of his storied career to crafting large scale epics with various degrees of success. Ridley Scott returns to the genre with one of his most expensive and ambitious efforts to date. Napoleon is a gargantuan historical tale starring Joaquin Phoenix as the titular French military leader, exploring his rise and fall as the world’s most talented, yet overly ambitious war strategist, as well as his tumultuous relationship with Empress Joséphine.
While Napoleon Bonaparte isn’t considered a heroic figure by any means, history doesn’t necessarily view him as unfavourably as we should, especially in France where some still shockingly view him as a national hero. Ridley Scott’s may completely change the public perception of Napoleon, as its a scathing, humiliating takedown of the French leader and paints him in an extremely negative light. Scott’s obvious destain for Napoleon helps to separate the film from other biopics, and gives it a unique identity.
There’s a reason why Napoleon’s reign is often one of history majors favourite eras to study. It’s a riveting and thoroughly entertaining story on paper that lends itself well to film. Ridley Scott is the perfect filmmaker to tell this story, as he has a knack for modernizing historical tales and turning them into an entertaining spectacle, without sacrificing the validity of the events being told.
Napoleon is without a doubt one of the most mesmerizing technical achievements of the year. Ridley Scott and his team successfully capture the sheer scope and brutality of the wars Napoleon lead France in, producing some of the most dynamic and extravagant battle sequences ever put to film. Darius Wolski’s sweeping cinematography paired with the heart-pounding sound design makes every scene on the battlefield feel incredibly immersive, especially when seen in IMAX. These sequences are able to boast an unbelievably large scope, while interjecting quieter moments that show Napoleon strategizing and making tactile battle decisions that often lead to victories.
While the action on display is mesmerizing, much like the titular historical figure himself, Napoleon struggles off the battlefield. David Scarpa’s screenplay is fairly weak and undermines Ridley Scott’s impressive direction. The dialogue is underwritten and doesn’t even attempt to try to accurately depict what Napoleon’s conversions may have sounded like. The script is sprinkled with modern language that completely goes against the intense level of detail and period-accuracy of the costumes and production design.
Joaquin Phoenix is an incredible actor whose larger-than-life on-screen persona would appear to make him the perfect actor to portray a figure like Napoleon. However, his monotonous line deliver and childlike interpretation of the famous historical leader is sure to be divisive. Despite many of the supporting actors accurately using European accents, Phoenix did not even attempt to try a French accent, and instead uses his regular speaking voice. This ends up being a detriment to his performance and he never truly commits to the role. The film does have intentional humour sprinkled throughout, but Phoenix’s bizarre delivery of lines and over-the-top physicality is unintentionally hilarious. While certainly entertaining, It derails the tone of the film during certain scenes that are clearly intended to be serious in nature.
Outside of the battle sequences, the strongest aspect of the film is Vanessa Kirby’s fierce and emotional performance as Empress Joséphine. She is undoubtedly the heart of the film and outshines Phoenix considerably in every scene they share together. The film’s exploration of their unlikely and tragic relationship, and the genuine love they shared for each other, is fascinating. While the film does place a heavy emphasis on the battle sequences, their love story is equally as riveting and I hope it’s more heavily explored in the upcoming 4-hour directors cut of the film.
Napoleon’s weak script, tonal inconsistencies and a ridiculous lead performance from Joaquin Phoenix unfortunately prevent it from being a truly great film. However, from a filmmaking standpoint, it is certainly a late career triumph for Ridley Scott and reaffirms his status as one of the most important directors of his generation.
Review by: Tristan French
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