Napoleon Bonaparte and his saga of valour are etched in the pages of history for over eons now. Many directors such as Abel Gance and Sergei Bondarchuk have already made films depicting the French man’s journey from a general to the emperor of France, focusing on his conquests, victories and defeat. But Ridley Scott in his latest historical epic film explores a different side of Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) , focusing on his relationship with Empress Joséphine (played by Vanessa Kirby).
Scott’s Napoleon is an obsessive lover who, as he himself claims, is nothing without the love of his life Joséphine. The France of late 1700s was going through a tumultuous time with several revolutionary movements going on to seize power, until Napoleon liberated the nation from the pangs of anarchy and restored order after becoming the emperor. However, power ironically brought misery in Napoleon’s personal life. While he was away fighting wars in different parts of the world, his wife found new love interests which at instances even made him return to his house, at the cost of deserting the battlefield. Throughout the film, Scott shows Napoleon as a passionate lover who is unable to let go off his wife for a single moment. He always carried a part of her wherever he went and whatever he did she always reigned over his heart and mind.
The film opens with a period of crisis known as the ‘Reign of Terror’ coming to an end. Scott manages to capture the chaotic times through the rejoice of people who are celebrating their freedom from the tyrannical monarch, Louis XVI of France. He adequately portrays the barbarism of French society where people cherished acts of violence through the horrific scene of Marie Antoinette’s guillotine. As her severed head gets lifted up towards people to ensure the prevalent of justice, we watch a passive Napoleon watch the act as he stands in the crowd.
The narrative of the film then quickly shifts to the man’s life. But screenwriter David Scarpa’s version is unlike the Napoleon we have read about in our history books; he is the kind of person who is caught sleeping when Directory head Paul Barras talks to him about politics. His finesse in military tactics often doesn’t materialise when he tries to fight against his opponents. Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal sees the man gasping and panicking whenever situations get complicated in the battlefield, contrary to the image of Napoleon we have in our minds for almost 200 years now.
Scott perhaps knowingly mocks our perception of Napoleon, thereby presenting us with an emperor whose quest for invasion originates mainly due to his insecurities and turbulent married life. He initiates battles to conquer countries in order to momentarily fill the void of his life with his momentary victories. But these remain irrefillable voids, and nothing ever becomes enough to fill them except his love for Joséphine whose presence around consistently remains flickering.
The makers use blue and grey as a recurrent colour in most frames of the film which perfectly goes with the bleak milieu in which the plot is set. All the battle sequences starting from The Seige of Toulon, Battle of Austeritz, Battle of Bordino and finally Battle of Waterloo perfectly complimented by the brilliant background score of Martin Phipps are well accomplished battle sequences which shows Scott’s flair of historical dramas. However amidst everything it’s the exchange of letters between Napoleon and Joséphine which serves as the foundation of the film.
We watch Napoleon brimming with life and energy, mainly in the bedroom when he spends quality time with the love of his life Joséphine but also in his heated conversations with her during meals. The partly psychosexual side strangely contradicts itself in the battlefield where we see a completely different Napoleon as an emperor who is utterly bemused. Even when the historical accounts of his gallantry remain debatable, the plot remains consistently engaging.
Considering Scott’s projection of Napoleon where he is a tragic hero, his hamartia remains his unwavering love for his wife. Napoleon and Joséphine’s marriage was annulled since she was unable to give an heir to the throne. Years of togetherness come to an end which ironically anticipates the end of Napoleon’s victorious era. Even though they were legally separated, their heart and soul were tied together for eternity. Joséphine gave meaning to Napoleon’s existence and her permanent absence therefore marked the beginning of his downfall.
The cannons, horses, troop of soldiers, and especially the depth of field stretching for miles envelope the overarching battlefields that validate Napoleon’s life. The cinematography by Dariusz Wolski feature snow covered hills where bloodied bodies break through ice as soldiers fighting against their opponents endlessly. Scott’s vision rarely compromises on the technical aspects of the visceral worlds he paints, and the same remains true here. The ingredients to paint the mood for a perfect epic drama are all there, nonetheless the film’s inability to emotionally invest the audience due to it’s shallow screenplay is one of it’s major drawbacks.
Phoenix unfortunately isn’t put to proper use by Scott. Although he leaves an impact of his own with bits of dry and awkward humor, Kirby perfectly fits into the role of a femme fatale appearing to be an enigma both to Napoleon and to the audience. Scott brings down Napoleon from the pedestal on which he is placed for decades and presents him like a common man – one whose only weakness is his excessive love for his wife. A man who is both foolish and unlucky when it comes to love and who would go to any extent to reunite with his love. The accuracy of Scott’s depiction of Napoleon is doubtful, but then we also cannot ignore the fact that Napoleon’s last words before his death included Joséphine’s name which proves how she must have been an indispensable part of his life.
Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” is a bold depiction of a tormented lover’s tragic love story, charting in its backdrop the rise and fall of a glorious warrior. Ultimately, it does fall short in certain aspects when compared to his other historical masterpieces like “The Duellists” and “Gladiator”. In all, it remains alluring and engaging to some extent, but definitely not worth remembering. Tragically, this too will gradually fade as a lost memory in the time to come.