Opening 23 Nov 2023
Epic. This single word fills the screen in the trailer for this movie, taken out of context from another review. Clearly, we are meant to take the word in its most positive, slangy light, as synonymous with awesome. When actually it could just mean really, really arduously long. So which is it?
If we had to spend all our time with Napoleon the man, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, it would be simply long. Could Napoleon really have been this bland? It’s possible, of course, that he was a mere shell of a man, all ambition and bluster masking a painful small-man complex (the myth that he was short is not played out here—like Napoleon himself, Phoenix is of normal height—but Napoleon’s insecurity about his humble origins is hinted at as his motivating force). He doesn’t have much to say in this movie, but perhaps he was a man of action, not words. And action is what this movie is all about.
Battle after battle after battle. Some of the major ones are merely mentioned; Napoleon remarks in passing that the conquering of Italy went off without a hitch. The first time we see him in action is early in his career, and he goes in gasping, adrenaline pumping; years later, battle-hardened, he’s wooden. Throughout, the battle scenes are huge, monstrous, (yes) epic, and horribly violent. Gore abounds, but we’ve come to expect that from the opening sequence, when Marie Antoinette loses her head, and when Napoleon’s horse’s chest literally explodes in the very first battle we see. So much brutality, and so much of it in slow motion so that we catch every splatter and grunt.
Off the battlefield, Napoleon had his Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). Their fraught but famously highly-sexed relationship both sustains and depletes him. It didn’t end well for either of them, of course, but there are no spoiler alerts needed when going into a historical film. Real history buffs will find plenty of botched details to be outraged about, but Ridley Scott knows his stuff and makes his directorial decisions with purpose. This film most closely resembles his Gladiator (2000) in all aspects, including the presence of the arrogant sphinx that is Joaquin Phoenix in both films. It’s epic. (Mason Jane Milam)