Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” marks the first time since he and Joaquin Phoenix have collaborated since 2000’s “Gladiator.” While this film isn’t quite in the same league as that Oscar-winning epic, it’s still a massive, ambitious, full-throttled, occasionally darkly funny, and mostly engrossing epic.
This is a film that tries to delve deep into the elaborate mystique of Napoleon by presenting him as a multifaceted persona. He’s one part commanding general, he’s one part lover and he’s another part narcissist. All of the facets work largely due to the commitment of its charismatic star.
The movie does give a biographical treatment by starting off with Napoleon witnessing the beheading of Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution and then segues into how he went from commanding the Battle of the Siege of Toulon, which features director Scott clearly in his comfort zone. It’s a bloody battle of remarkable visual poetry.
When the movie doesn’t focus on Napoleon’s war strategies, it goes into his volatile relationship with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). Kirby plays her as a woman who loves Napoleon but ultimately can’t give him what he seeks the most: An heir.
Still, their chemistry is just as bombastic as the battle scenes.
Another great highlight of the film comes during the Battle of Austerlitz, where Napoleon and his troops fight against the Russians and Austrians. Scenes like this must be experienced in IMAX.
Scott and Phoenix, along with the cast and hundreds and hundreds of technicians and craftspeople, have crafted a film that sadly gets lost in the midst of today’s hi-tech special effects extravaganzas. Scott crafts a film that relies on building exquisite sets, hundreds of extras in breathtaking costumes, and shoots on locations with the keen eye of his cinematographer Dariusz Wolski.
Phoenix lands another feather in the cap of his brilliant career. His portrayal of Napoleon is deserving of an Oscar consideration for his intelligence, vulnerability, skill, and clarity. However, Kirby is the real scene-stealer as Josephine. Her performance is borderline campy at times but she never becomes farcical. She plays Josephine as a woman who does not completely and amicably realize the consequences of her relationship with the Emperor. I hope an Oscar nomination is in her future.
Like “Oppenheimer” and “Killers of the Flower Moon,” this is not a monotonous undertaking. It is long, but it never sacrifices the story and characters in order to make it an overblown spectacle.
Scott, Phoenix, Kirby, and the rest of the cast and crew deserve a tsunami of acclamation for one of the year’s biggest entertainments.
(Rated R for strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and brief language.)
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