There are ghosts on and off the screen in Ridley Scott’s 28th feature, chief among them being Stanley Kubrick’s unrealized biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Corsican military strategist who inveigled his way up through the ranks of the military to become the leader of France not once but twice. That at the age of nearly 86 Scott has stepped up to finish what Kubrick couldn’t is something the British director will no doubt relish. But though his take on the story is his own, there’s still something elusive about Bonaparte’s story that doesn’t make a coherent whole: as is consistent with history, Scott’s Napoleon is a lover and a fighter, an incongruity that leads to sharp changes in tone and a restlessly episodic narrative that can be overwhelming in its dates, names and places.
For Napoleon to work at all, it needs an imposing but charismatic presence, someone like Marlon Brando, who played Bonaparte in the strange 1954 historical romance Desirée. Kubrick had wanted Jack Nicholson, and Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t fall far from that tree. His casting certainly sets the tone, and Scott doesn’t waste any time in laying out his stall: this will be an old-school epic, in the vein of Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, and there is certainly a visceral pleasure from seeing Scott, a master craftsman, putting every dollar, and more, on the screen.
Those movies, however, usually went for blockbuster casting, and — though it serves the story, being the story of a man who effortlessly outclassed his peers — Napoleon often feels like it’s missing a star turn or two, a nagging suspicion that is confirmed when Rupert Everett turns up in the final 40 minutes, as the wily Duke of Wellington, and Bonaparte finally meets his match.
Scott has said that Kubrick’s treatment didn’t interest him because it spanned “birth to death,” but David Scarpa’s script is not a million miles away from that, tracing Bonaparte’s ascension to his death, which is 28 years out of 51. A written prologue sets the opening scenes in revolutionary France, noting that “people are driven by misery to revolution” and vice-versa, as we see the agonizing decapitation of Marie Antoinette. The public is delighted, but behind the scenes, the French government is in crisis. To boost morale, Bonaparte offers his services to regime leader Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim), devising an ingenious guerilla attack on a British fortress in Toulon.
His plan is a success, and Scott paints it in all its bloody glory, culminating in the spectacular cannon-fire destruction on British ships with images that are as brutal and immediate as CNN and yet touched with the artistry of Canaletto (the ethics of this — deploying aesthetics in depictions of war — are open to debate, but Scott has manage to skirt that issue for years now). Within these explosive 20 minutes, the film is off the starting blocks, establishing Bonaparte as a man with a thirst for combat and a fearless warrior who who has no qualms about leading from the front. How can it possibly keep up the pace for the next 2 hours 30?
Unsurprisingly, it can’t; the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte is so interlinked with the maze of bureaucracy that followed The Reign of Terror — the intrigue and counter-intrigue — that Scott immediately pivots to Bonaparte’s first encounter with Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby). Joséphine catches him staring at her at a society ball and immediately confronts him. Bonaparte is in all his military finery, but Joséphine is withering. “What is this costume you have on?” she asks. “It is my uniform,” he says, a funny little moment that shows how small he becomes in her presence. He ends the scene by begging her: “Do not tell me your name.” But he finds out anyway, when she sends her young son to retrieve his late father’s saber.
Joséphine is a dichotomy that fascinates Bonaparte. “When you look at me, do you see an aristocrat?” she wonders, before telling him that, while imprisoned during the Terror, she used her body to survive. Despite these “indiscretions,” Bonaparte ploughs on with the relationship; unaware that she has taken a lover behind his back, he writes intense, impassioned letters as he begins his onslaught across the world. When his mind should be on the job, it is firmly elsewhere (“My achievements seem slight, as they keep us apart,” he says). And in a subtle foreshadowing of how things are about to pan out, he notes, “This love I have for you is a kind of death.”
Clearly, then, there are two very different stories intertwining here, and, for a time, they don’t quite meet in the middle. Kirby struggles with a role that has so much psychological weight — their “love” is better described as a toxic, S&M-style co-dependency — but increasingly less screen time, as Bonaparte becomes obsessed with producing a male heir under the watchful eye of his mother. It’s perhaps to be expected, then, that Scott pulls out all the stops for the combat scenes, topping the fiery siege of Toulon with the icy battle of Austerlitz and, finally, the moment that Bonaparte literally met his Waterloo, in exquisite and presumably faithfully rendered battle scenes that gun for Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.
Just as it capped Bonaparte’s story, Waterloo brings things to a satisfying conclusion, largely thanks to Everett’s portrayal of Wellington. Scott even brings a touch of self-deprecating British humor to the fore here (“I never get wet if I can help it,” says Wellington, mounting his horse at the very last minute), and the director allows Britain to celebrate its victory with no strings attached — which shows a lot of good grace, given the disastrous performance by British politicians in the last seven years.
The runtime doesn’t exactly fly by, and one shudders to think how a Director’s Cut with two more hours will help that, but Napoleon, like its subject, gets where it’s going by stealth. What takes some getting used to is that the real movie is happening in Bonaparte’s mind; he is inured to the fact that his peers think he is a thug, that he has held the world hostage, that he will fight to achieve peace by any means necessary, and, while doing it, he is dismissive of almost everyone he meets (“It’s such a shame that such a great man should have no manners,” sniffs a British envoy). It’s hard to imagine an actor that could pull this off and make it so engaging, but Phoenix does, an achievement made especially impressive when you realize that this self-styled master of war sent over 3 million men to their deaths in just 22 years.
Distributor: Sony Pictures
Release date: November 22, 2023
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: David Scarpa
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Ludivine Sagnier, Rupert Everett, Tahar Rahim
Running time: 2 hr 38 min