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.

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

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.

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 off more than he chan chew when the Russians have the temerity to burn Moscow to deny the city to the French and to save the Russian army. And to cap it all they refuse to come to peace terms despite Napoleon waiting weeks for the surrender.

By then the Russian winter is approaching and at that point Napoleon goes north to St Petersburg, against the advice of his generals. That will be his undoing, in Russia and when he returns to France.

The Russians beat the French in the battles of Tarutino and Maloyaroslavets, but neither is mentioned. We see that the winter forces him to retreat in defeat, but we see nothing of that horror.

Half of Napoleon’s army died in that retreat and we know the details of the frozen bodies on the road because it is all in the contemporary account, The Memoirs of Sergeant Burgoyne.

It is important to know because the survivors who retreated with Napoleon supported him again after the exile on Elba. Why was that? Was he a populist whom 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.

Napoleon is exiled because of his defeat in Russia, so much is fact.

When he sails from Elba after less than a year in exile, his motley band of followers march with him. They meet the opposing forces and in one quick speech those opposing him change sides and join him. Just like that. And they march on Paris. Again – it might have been like that historically, but the way it was presented was a Monty Python version.

Then comes Waterloo.

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.

I came away thinking that so much money and time was spent on the reconstruction of the battles that there was no time to tell the story properly.

We hear Napoleon say that he wants to bring about universal peace. He fought everyone to bring that about. But countries changed sides. Allies became enemies and vice versa. Kings and emperors admired him, forged alliances with him and then betrayed him and defeated him.

Perhaps the message of the film was in there.

At the end of the film there was a tally of the dead:

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)
INVASION OF RUSSIA 460,000 dead
1793-1815: over 3,000,000 dead

So what do we learn? That Napoleon was successful for a while but in the end he bit off more than he could chew. And in pursuit of his dream of peace under his banner he brought about the death of millions.