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Napoleon

Year: 2023
Production Co: Scott Free
Studio: Apple Films
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: David Scarpa
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Rupert Everett, Ludivine Sagnier

It's exactly the kind of film we can expect from Ridley Scott at his most bombastic, and with the real world sets, in-camera effects and fairly seamless use of VFX, it's the kind of movie no studio (except the tech giants and streaming services) wants to spend $200m making nowadays.

None of which is to say it really works or is any good. It almost does and almost is, it's just very dry and procedural. In another version of the same movie a sense of movement and visual pop might have helped, but Scott and his DP Dariusz Wolski light and shoot with such muted colours that the blues and reds of the French flag, military uniforms and even the blood and guts just aren't very interesting to look at.

But the most egregious sin is that one of the best actors of our generation is completely wasted. Even in a fairly slight love story like Two Lovers from years ago, Joaquin Phoenix does something that makes you come away believing you've seen a rare talent, and the high water mark was Joker, a performance more powerful and searing than we'd seen in years.

So to install him here and have him barely raise an eyebrow isn't just a waste, it's a letdown. I was expecting and looking forward to Phoenix showing us directly into Napoleon's tortured soul. Instead he just scowls and sometimes cries his way through a script that gives him nothing to do.

If there's a theme, it might be something about how there's a woman driving every powerful man, or it might just be that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Napoleon started out as a Corsican soldier in the post revolution years when France had deposed the monarchy at the blade of the guillotine, and he ended up having himself crowned emperor, a whole new monarchy designed to consolidate and fortify his power when he was part of the movement that rejected the old one.

The plot broadly follows his beginnings as a military grunt all the way up to his exile on Saint Helena after he started losing territory instead of winning it. He has the ear of a powerful ally high up in the French political court, so he gets to wage his own campaign of conquest against the British conquerers, taking one battlefield after another and rising through the ranks of political power, all while simultaneously supported and belittled by his desire for his wife Josephine (Vanessa Kirby).

It looks authentic and there's no reason to believe the historical figures aren't mostly accurate (even if they're composites for the sake of drama), but part of the critical backlash against it has been issues with the historical accuracy - the battle on the frozen lake happened nothing like the way Scott depicted it, for instance.

It's just so dramatically insipid and inert. There are a few exciting set pieces and Scott doesn't shy away from the brutal physics of 19th century battle technology (like the horse scene, or the one where Napoleon has infantry fire on an advancing line of anti-royal protesters), but the rest of the time you're listening to pretty drab conversations in dank, dusty palaces or tented command centres.

And then, in an almost three hour long movie, it takes one of the pivotal events in his career – his decision to turn against previous ally Russia, the act that led to his first real defeat – it's tossed off in a quick voiceover of a letter he's writing back home where he's decided to invade because the Russian Tsar reneges on a peace treaty. Then we cut incongruously to a scene where he's describing how many men he's lost while he's on the retreat.

It was the turning point in feudal-era France's global ambitions, like D-Day for World War II, it's described and over in half a minute and we don't even get to see it!

Like he did in House Of Gucci, Scott once again casts English speaking actors to don silly accents, a style that kid of jars nowadays after cinema has become so international, and considering this has been a dream project for so many directors for such a long time going right back to Kubrick, we deserved a much more interesting version than this.

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