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Napoleon by Ridley Scott with Joaquin Phoenix: the film review

It is 1812, in the hellish Russian winter. Thousands of French troops (and their allies) are desperately retreating towards Poland, victims of the climate rather than of the opposing forces (although the Tsar’s army has undoubtedly inflicted its damage). The leader of these besieged men, Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix), walks among them. «We’re winning!», she says. Lol.

Napoleon Of Ridley Scott (in theaters November 23) is a study in stubbornness, perhaps particularly of the male kind. The film, written by David Scarpatakes one of the most studied figures in history and transforms him into the embodiment of a ruinous human impulse: the single-minded pursuit of more fame, more glory, more power. Megalomaniacs like Napoleon they have emerged throughout the history of our species, destroying everything around them and, ultimately, themselves. Perhaps Scott and Scarpa see in this some relevance or some reference to our era. For example, Donald Trump Is he a Napoleonic figure, even if what afflicts him is not the shortness of his fingers but an extreme general smallness? Is he one of the many strongmen who have risen to power in the last decade or so? He may be.

Even if the jokes about Napoleon’s height are not wasted, the film is full of humor. The reading he gives Napoleon of this infamous and strangely illustrious emperor is that of one ridiculous and irascible figure: not quite at the “terribly displeased” extremes of Phoenix’s character in the Gladiator of Scott, but certainly of the same family. Phoenix has always been good at representing this type of pathetic despotism, moving skillfully (and suddenly) from a brazen and vain indifference to the real threat. While the actor seems to understand the slapstick as well as the serious side of the film, it would be nice if Scott was better at communicating this nuance to the audience.

The final intent of Napoleon can only be vaguely inferred. Although repetitive, it is partly a film war invigorating. It is also an ironic study of the dangerous male ego (which Scott however outlined better in his 2021 film The Last Duel). And then, in the background, there is the love story between Napoleon and his former wife, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). In the first, promising part of that narrative thread, the film seems to be heading towards the territory of The hidden thread: A look at a boastful but talented man, who is in danger of being ruined by his romantic counterpart. Kirby, as often happens, is a pearl of intelligence and elegance, who plants inflexible glances punctuated with authentic resentment on this bizarre little man who perhaps he comes to love. Or maybe she’s just in love with her power. Or they are the same thing.

Napoleon is a demanding and violent husband, who expects total devotion from his wife, but who nevertheless keeps crawling back to her, ever more eager for the mysterious power of Giuseppina herself, whatever it may be. Even in this case, however, to draw a theme from all this back and forth you have to make an effort. Scott holds up the film terribly austere and it doesn’t even give us a great final scene before Giuseppina’s death from diphtheria. “Yes, yes, there’s that stuff,” Scott seems to say, before moving once again to yet another colossal, textbook battle scene of war.

Scenes, these, which are obviously the director’s strong point, as demonstrated by Gladiator to confusing but interesting The Crusades – Kingdom of Heaven and to his pleasantly mercurial interpretation of Robin Hood. Here, Scott replaces arrows with cannonballs, which hurtle and thunder across the fields of continental Europe (and, in a horrendously funny scene of gratuitous destruction, into the Pyramid of Cheops). Horses and men are slaughtered in equal measure and with blind fury (the budget for the management and care of the animals in this production must have been enormous). Particularly effective is the sequence of Austerlitz, a gruesome snow battle that sees Napoleon’s enemies flee, in terribly vain, across a frozen lake. If these are the things that Scott is passionate about, so be it. Maybe next time he can deal with the American Revolution.

However, it should handle better what surrounds these scenes of epic annihilation. Napoleon is not devoid of personality: the dialogues are agile and often funny, and Rupert Everett he is a hilarious interpreter of the Duke of Wellington, the British general who faces Napoleon at Waterloo. Unfortunately, this wit is not sufficient. If there’s one thing that should be missing from a Ridley Scott film about Napoleon, this is probably it boredom: which instead is present far too often. The film begins with the usual unpleasant and characteristic bang that announces a France gone mad and bloodthirsty (we open with the beheading of Marie Antoinette), but then gradually settles into the usual detailed account of any standard biopic on the life, death and miracles of the character on duty.

Perhaps the trick would be to make a film that focuses on just one moment or one aspect of Napoleon’s life rather than packing in everything from the Reign of Terror to his end in exile on the remote island of St. Helena. The holistic approach means that Scott is forced to move forward while simultaneously extending the film’s running time to nearly two hours and forty minutes. In this way, Napoleon it feels as rushed as it is boring, enlivened only occasionally by an ironic but fleeting allusion to what he might have said.

Source: Vanity Fair

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