The time when the major studios would throw millions at historical epics to cover their production and advertising costs have all but gone the way of the samurai. Today, it is the rare filmmaker who can command the trust of the studio heads to finance an expensive yet important period piece that might prove a gamble at the box office. Sir Ridley Scott is such a filmmaker and “Napoleon” is such a motion picture.
As today’s big budget films rely too heavily on CGI and fail to have dramatic bite, it is Ridley Scott who continues to create stunning visual motifs to tell serious stories filled with great characters, and (in his historical films) meticulously designed and exciting action set pieces. At 86, the filmmaker is aging like the fine wines he loves. Covering three decades of Napoleon’s history, Scott’s mastery of the art is evident in every moment of this tremendous achievement.
David Scarpa’s extremely well designed screenplay begins in 1793 with the execution of Marie Antoinette, where Napoleon (then a young officer) takes advantage of the civil unrest that follows, proving himself a master military strategist and leader. Sent to the town of Toulon, he is to liberate a fort held by the British. Napoleon’s plan is to secure the harbor and take back the port city in the name of the Republic. As Napoleon adjusts his hat to the famous manner history knows him to wear it, a legend rises and another expert performance from Joaquin Phoenix is born.
As Napoleon states, “I promised you brilliant successes and I kept my word.” This proclamation applies to Phoenix’s performance as well. In another dedicated turn, the actor fully commits to all sides of this complicated figure. Napoleon Bonaparte was many things; a great leader, a master general, an emperor, etc, but as a man he was flawed. Napoleon was a jealous and insecure person who took glee in outsmarting his enemies, but found little joy in life. Even his love of Joséphine (a great Vanessa Kirby) brought him depression and distrust, as she was known to take lovers while he was away fighting battles. Phoenix channels the melancholy that seems to run through Napoleon’s soul, wearing a dour pout and only a hint of the occasional smile. Napoleon’s passion lies in his desire to conquer and in his love for Joséphine. Joaquin Phoenix relishes the role, playing Napoleon as smart and driven, yet a petulant and self-indulgent half of a codependent couple. Looking as powerful on horseback leading thousands of soldiers as he looks sullen when sulking around the palaces and bedrooms of France, Phoenix does tremendous work.
As Joséphine, Vanessa Kirby is entrancing and charismatic. The performance makes it understandable that Napoleon would be immediately attracted to her. Kirby’s great work shows Joséphine as confident and in control of her own sexuality. Napoleon cannot satisfy his wife, but she remains dutiful as they continue to try for an heir, which becomes a major point of contention between the two. Almost always smirking as if she is one step ahead of her husband’s thoughts, Joséphine is poised and secure, but as things begin to sour, she becomes more brittle than she may realize.
The battles contained within “Napoleon” are nothing short of spectacular. Scott doesn’t return to the battlefield madness he perfected in his Oscar-winning “Gladiator”, where he put the audience in the middle of the chaos. This time, the director returns to the patient style of his 1978 Napoleonic War-set drama “The Duellists”. This is a film of scope and Scott wants the audience to take in every inch of every frame, as he shoots the combat with the eye of David Lean or Anthony Mann.
There is clarity to every explosion and every charge from the foot soldiers. When men and steel clash and cannonballs blast, Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski assure that the power of the battles are felt while never losing the artistry of the compositions. These riveting sequences rank among the best of their type ever made.
Mixing classical pieces with a bold and beautiful Michel Legrand-tinged score, Martin Phipps composes a fitting tribute to Scott’s visuals, smoothly navigating every dramatic beat while enhancing the vigorous execution of the battle scenes. It has been some time since a film’s score took advantage of a full orchestra and truly embodied the time and place of its subject. Phipp’s outstanding contribution is the best original score of the year.
The supporting cast does very well. Tahar Rahim is perfect as regime leader Paul Barras while Paul Rhys (long a fantastic character actor) is having a fruitful year with memorable roles in this film and in Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn”.
In the final act, Rupert Everett enters with an excellent turn as the Duke of Wellington, bringing an arsenal of British snobbery and overconfidence and just a dash of dry wit.
David Scarpa’s script must get the recognition it deserves. Although Sir Ridley has said the full four hour director’s cut will premiere on AppleTV, this film is full of well-drawn characters and situations. The dialogue is always involving and (along with the emotional and political intrigues) never strays far from the history it is presenting. For a film that is promising another hour and a half, Scarpa’s screenplay and Scott’s direction already assure the picture is completely captivating on every level.
“Napoleon” is an old-fashioned epic in the best sense; a grand film of dramatic power and an astonishing technical accomplishment. Ridley Scott is the last surviving master of this kind of film. Leading his cast and crew through this mammoth undertaking as Napoleon led his troops to victory, Scott has delivered one of 2023’s finest pictures and one of his best films in decades.
Written by David Scarpa
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Paul Rhys, Rupert Everett
R, 158 Minutes, Apple Studios/Dune Films/Scott Free Productions