Review: “Napoleon” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby

Major motion pictures about Napoleon are few and far between. In my opinion, the best is “Waterloo”. It starred Rod Steiger as the French ruler and Christopher Plummer as his main rival, the Duke of Wellington. This film debuted in 1970: my inability to name another epic about the same topic at the same scale, tells me something about this genre’s scarcity. Perhaps weirdly, “Waterloo” was a joint Italian / Soviet production and filmed in Ukraine.

I particularly liked how “Waterloo” provided detailed, believable portraits of the main characters. Rod Steiger’s Napoleon is brilliant, neurotic, clearly in decline and he knows it. Plummer’s Wellington is upper crust, clever, self-assured to the point of arrogance, and filled with the prejudices and foibles of the English aristocracy. “Waterloo” utilises a “whispering monologue” technique, which I have only seen elsewhere in the 1984 version of “Dune”, to indicate what the characters are thinking. In “Waterloo”, this method provides additional effective exposition.

“Waterloo”’s concentration on a single battle shows the conflict was close run; if Wellington’s Prussian reinforcements arrived later, Napoleon could have possibly won, reasserted his authority, and extended out the Napoleonic Wars.

I had this predecessor in mind when I approached Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon”. Early indications were promising: Scott picked Joaquin Phoenix to be the emperor. Phoenix has a notable talent for playing disturbed characters; he portrayed the lascivious, unstable Roman Emperor Commodus in “Gladiator”. He was impressive as the murderously deranged Arthur Fleck in “The Joker”. He knows what it is like to be in a role that flirts with the edge of sanity and goes beyond it. Surely, Napoleon was not beyond his grasp.

Scott suggests that Napoleon’s great love Josephine was the key to the man’s meteoric rise, and her later absence was a significant cause of his fall. Vanessa Kirby uses seductive power in her portrayal of Josephine; her experience playing Princess Margaret in the early series of “The Crown” serves her well. She plays the courtesan and the empress with equal skill.

There are additional positives. Scott clearly knows how to stage a battle; the massacre better known as the Battle of Austerlitz is dramatically enhanced by a stark palette of frozen white, midnight black, and contrasted by bright red plumes of blood. Other battles are similarly brutal and terrifying. There is no glory in Napoleon’s wars. However, the breadth of the film prevents going into too much detail about any of Napoleon’s triumphs and defeats. Scott wants us to assume his genius; we do not really see the intellectual effort and leaps of insight that were key to his success. This makes failures, such as the invasion of Russia and the burning of Moscow, less dramatic and interesting.

This brings us to the film’s main issue. It may very well be it suffers because it tries to do too much in the space of a little under three hours. In contrast, “Waterloo” may be more effective precisely because it is concentrated: we don’t need to see Napoleon’s previous triumphs, Steiger’s Napoleon uses mention of them to bolster his generals’ morale.

Furthermore, Steiger’s Napoleon gets visibly angry and upset, is fussy, and feels his mortality to the point of hypochondria. Phoenix’s Napoleon mainly wears a mask of calm, if not indifference; we see little of the charisma that propelled him to near-mastery of Europe. He seems to rise because of tactical and strategic nous, some luck, and little else. Steiger’s Napoleon has space to show his administrative skills: there is a scene in “Waterloo” in which he dictates letters to several secretaries almost simultaneously. Phoenix’s interpretation is difficult to square with legal innovations like the Napoleonic Code.

There is one particular scene which highlights the stark contrast between the films’ approaches. After Napoleon’s initial defeat, the Allies exiled him to the island of Elba. He stages a comeback, taking his small force back to France. En route, troops belonging to the recently restored Bourbon monarchy block them.

Both Steiger’s and Phoenix’s Napoleon step out in front of their soldiers to speak to the men in their way. In “Waterloo”, we see Steiger clasp his hands behind his back, the tensed grip. We see the nervous glimmer in his eyes, beads of sweat on his forehead. As he speaks, we, the viewers, are conscious that he is taking a great gamble. The tension is palpable: the Royalist troops have their guns aimed at Napoleon’s chest. We know the history, but had one Royalist pulled the trigger, it could have ended then and there. The frightful silence breaks when a commander shouts “Fire!”. Then, a soldier faints and the remainder rush to join Napoleon.

Phoenix’s portrayal achieves none of this. There is very little tension, if any. It is as if he is asking “You with me?” and gets a tepid “Yeah, sure” in reply.

Scott’s addition of Josephine should add depth; it does not. She basically controls Napoleon with sex and blatantly cuckolds him. We hear quotes from letters written by Napoleon indicating his frustration with her behaviour. We see Napoleon admit to Josephine that without her he is nothing, and he makes odd humming noises and stamps his feet when he wants to have sex with her. She clearly tolerates rather than enjoys the rather curtailed, perfunctory act. I don’t believe this adds anything to our understanding. Steiger’s portrayal showed plenty of mental aberration without this element.

Like “Waterloo”, “Napoleon” injects the Duke of Wellington into the story. Rupert Everett took up this role and executed it with his usual panache. However, unlike Christopher Plummer, he had limited material with which to work. His meeting with Napoleon near the end of the film, though fictional, is well done. The contrast between Everett’s and Phoenix’s acting styles made it seem like the Duke was more saddened by Napoleon’s exile to the remote British island of Saint Helena than the emperor. Perhaps Scott wants us to believe Napoleon was in deep denial. However, given how generally flat Phoenix’s Napoleon is, I don’t think so.

Previously, Napoleon was available on Apple TV for £19.99; I heard if I waited long enough that it would be available without extra cost. I held off. I’m glad I did. I have watched “Waterloo” many times; I doubt I’ll be inclined to watch “Napoleon” again.

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