Napoleon: Film Review

I would love to have been a fly on the wall for this one. Joaquin Phoenix effectively played the Joker part again in frozen stillness, only coming alive when he was playing the tactician of battles or rushing into the fray wild eyed and mad like Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.

Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby as Josephine has zero chemistry and she looked permanently surprised. They made a scene of cavorting in public, beneath the table with officials meanwhile sat at dinner. Really? Like children.

How did Ridley Scott not see that theirs as not a good match for the screen? How could he have portrayed them as such broken cardboard figures?

So, the plot: Napoleon takes over France under the guise of ending the Terror and has lots of battles that meld into one. He bites of more than he chan chew when the Russians have the temerity to burn their own city and not come to peace terms.

At that point, Napoleon wants to go north to St Petersburg, against the advice of his generals. In the end we see somewhat of a retreat and defeat. What we do not see is that the Russians harried the French on the road north and beat them at two battles. There was no mention of the Battle of Tarutino or of the Battle of Maloyaroslavets where the Russians harried the French and forced them onto the own self-made death march south-east back onto the route Napoleon originally came on in invading Russia.

The retreat is told in The Memoirs of Sergeant Burgoyne, but we see almost northing of that horror in the film. So it was just a retreat. It is important to know because the men who retreated with Napoleon supported him again after the exile on Elba. Why was that? Was he a populist that they preferred to the alternative? None of that is explained. And it should have been because it is important in understanding France of the period. This Boy’s Own version doesn’t give us an explanation.

The point at which the film and I properly parted company was when Napoleon is in Egypt on campaign (as you do) and is told that his Josephine has a lover. He returns home and is accused of deserting his campaign. He, seemingly outraged, counter-accuses his accusers of deserting the governance of France. In a stand-off he runs off, gathers troops (who are of course loyal to him) and fights back and turns the tables.

So we have to believe that if Josephine had not had a lover then Napoleon would not have returned from Egypt and the consuls could have continued to merrily run France into the ground.

It may have been so as historical fact, but as a presentation of storytelling it was weak.

And then again when Napoleon sails from Elba after less than a year in exile, his motley band of followers march and meet the opposition and he turns them just like that, and regains his ruling position. Again – it might have been like that historically, but the way it was presented was more like Monty Python.

I held my breath fearing that Rupert Everett as Wellington would not be able to hold a serious glance – but he did and he was great.

The bottom line is that so much money and time was spent on the battles that there was no time left over to tell the story properly. We hear Napoleon say that he wants to bring about peace universally by beating everyone into a grand scheme. And that is one of the intriguing facts that is touched on in the film. Countries changed sides. Allies became enemies and vice versa. Perhaps above all that was the message of the film.

The whole film could have been told better in a graphic novel.

The perhaps poetic attempt to save the meaning of the film was at the end by giving the final tally of the dead, that read as follows.

He led 61 battles in his military career…
TOULON 6,000 dead
MARENGO 12,000 dead
AUSTERLITZ 16,500 dead
BORODINO 71,000 dead
WATERLOO 47,000 dead (one day)
1793-1815: over 3,000,000 died

So what do we learn? That Napoleon was good at war but in the end he bit off more than he could chew. And that in pursuit of his dream he brought about the death of millions/