Napoleon (2023) – Film Review

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Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim
Certificate: 15

By Roger Crow

Sid James and company sadly never made Carry On Napoleon, as fun as that would have been. And even if they had, the budget for the entire movie probably would have been the same for a day’s catering on Ridley Scott’s Napoleon. Not that his biopic of the French legend is an obvious comedy, though there are laugh-out-loud moments.

Joaquin Phoenix is the eponymous Corsican soldier who blazes a trail in military terms, but is something of a damp firework in the bedroom department when it comes to his beloved Josephine (a scenery-chewing Vanessa Kirby, who took on the role when Jodie Comer dropped out). While she is having affairs back home, he’s off doing military things while writing letters to her, wondering why she doesn’t worship him. The sexual dynamics between the two are every bit as stunning as the epic set pieces.

His desperate desire for an heir with Josephine involves clumsy lovemaking, and there’s no doubting who has the upper hand in the bedroom.

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“Bound to be copied”

Scott doesn’t waste time. When Napoleon chooses a teenage lover to spawn his offspring, the baby is born seconds after they meet. You almost get whiplash as some of the timeline moves so fast.

In the field, he’s mostly a genius, and is first to admit his brilliance. Napoleon firing on the pyramids was called out for being inaccurate by people who know more about the subject matter than most punters. Whether accurate or not, it looks fabulous as does the attention to detail. Single messengers taking two horses when reporting back to camp is a fascinating touch, and is bound to be copied in every historic movie that follows. And the battle scenes do not disappoint. Stanley Kubrick famously spent years trying to get a Napoleon biopic off the ground, but after that collapsed, the subject matter achieved an almost unfilmable mythos. Ridley Scott has long been influenced by Kubrick, especially when he made Alien, in part a homage to 2001. Here he achieves the sort of visual splendour and dramatic heft that Stan could only dream of.

It’s often a brutal movie with scenes of horse carnage that will leave many wincing, so be warned. And that epic battle on a frozen lake is one for the ages. Yes, it was shot in the same location as the opening battle from Gladiator, and at times feels like the same thing, but without Hans Zimmer’s fabulous score. (Hans clearly busy working on a dozen other projects at the time). However, it’s one of several epic set pieces that are unmissable. Napoleon’s coronation (shot at Lincoln Cathedral) echoes Scott’s impressive church work on 1492.

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Equally stunning is the inevitable battle of Waterloo, which features an unrecognisable Rupert Everett at the Duke of Wellington. Other famous faces popping up include Miles Jupp, Ian McNeice, Julian Rhind Tutt and the brilliant Paul Rhys (Saltburn/TV saga The Way).

Best line? Easily this cracker of an insult from the man himself: “You think you’re so great because you have boats!”, though a close second is “Destiny has brought me this lamb chop!”.

Historically it might not be completely on the money, but as full-blooded entertainment goes, this is best summed up by the opening line of that ABBA track ‘Waterloo’.

“My my!”

And it’s a shame that track wasn’t given a classical makeover like an episode of Bridgerton, so feel free to ask your smart speaker to improvise on a second watch. Remarkably there’s also no rendition of the 1812 overture during a scene set in that year. But maybe that’s too on the nose.

Anyway, fabulous stuff, and I’m already looking forward to a second viewing, if only for those battle scenes and the delicious turns from Phoenix and Kirby.

Napoleon is streaming now on Apple TV

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