Producer/director Ridley Scott might well be into his 80s, and yet he still manages to turn out a new gargantuan epic every two years or so. And he’s desperately wanted to handle a Napoleon Bonaparte biopic for damn decades.
Just as, it seems, every (male) filmmaker desperately wants to. And there have been lots of movie and TV Napoleons, from the sublime (Daniel Auteuil) to the ridiculous (Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger, just for starters), as well as unmade outings by the likes of Steven Spielberg and Baz Luhrmann, and a legendary never-produced pic from Stanley Kubrick, which would have somehow toplined the most un-Napoleonic Jack Nicholson.
Here, of course, the star is the glum Puerto Rican-born Joaquin Phoenix, who seems uneasy with the role at the start but, after a while, does grow into it, just a little, even if he should be speaking French and other languages. Oh, and be about six inches shorter.
His army officer Napoleon is introduced in 1793 while watching the guillotining of Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution, and we later see him choreograph the siege of Toulon, help keep order after the ‘Reign of Terror’, and violently repel the royalist insurrection of 1795. He also meets aristocratic widow Joséphine de Beauharnais (English actress Vanessa Kirby from several Mission: Impossibles), whom he romances, marries, and loudly obsesses over.
There’s some humour in the way that their relationship is shown as either grand pronouncements of love, furious rages over her infidelity, and amusingly basic lovemaking, and her dalliances behind his back when he’s off at the Battle of the Pyramids in 1798 lead him to race home. And a good thing too, as this whole sequence is strange and phony throughout.
Later extravagantly crowned Emperor, Napoleon’s forces are victorious at the Battles of Austerlitz and Borodino, and it’s in these action sequences that director Scott’s flick really comes alive. Refusing to use too much FX (unlike his badly flawed Kingdom Of Heaven), he instead employs plenty of extras, real costumes, and a few dangerous-looking stunts – and then lays on the computer-generated stuff.
However, at 158 minutes, this is (of course!) too long, even for a subject as huge as this, and there are certainly issues with aspects of screenwriter David Scarpa’s script, such as, for example, the iffy business about the whole invasion-of-Russia thing. But grumpy old Ridley famously doesn’t care about, you know, facts.
And as for Joaquin (who’s struggling with the ‘Great Actor’ label after his Joker Oscar), he does try, and the movie would probably never have been made without him. But he’s still not right, and yes, his American accent is never properly squashed.
Mon dieu indeed.
3 out of 5 STARS