It’s 1812 within the winter hell of Russia. 1000’s of French troops (and their allies) are making an agonizing retreat towards Poland, the victims of climate greater than their opposing forces. (Although the Tsar’s military has actually achieved its injury.) The chief of those beleaguered males, Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix), walks amongst them. “We’re profitable!” he says. Lol.
Ridley Scott’s Napoleon (in theaters November 22) is a research of such stubbornness, maybe significantly of the male selection. The movie, written by David Scarpa, takes probably the most studied figures in historical past and turns him into an avatar of a ruinous human impulse: the unyielding pursuit of extra renown, extra glory, extra energy. Megalomaniacs like Napoleon have emerged all through our species’s timeline, laying waste to a lot round them and, finally, to themselves. Maybe Scott and Scarpa see some pertinence there, some relevance to our personal period. Is, say, Donald Trump a Napoleonic determine, brief fingers swapped in for a basic diminutiveness? Is he any variety of the opposite sturdy males who’ve not too long ago risen to energy over the past decade or so? Perhaps.
Although the jokes about Napoleon’s top are sparing, there may be loads of different comedy within the movie. Napoleon’s model of this notorious and surprisingly revered emperor is a ridiculous, petulant determine—not fairly to the “terribly vexed” extremes of Phoenix’s character in Scott’s Gladiator, however actually in the identical household. Phoenix has all the time been good at depicting this type of pathetic tyranny, deftly (and swiftly) shifting from bratty, toothless insouciance to real menace. The actor appears to get each the joke and the seriousness of the movie, although I want Scott have been higher at speaking that tone to the viewers.
One can solely vaguely infer the final word intent of Napoleon. It’s half bracing, if repetitive, warfare movie. Additionally it is a wry survey of harmful male ego. (Scott did it higher in 2021’s The Final Duel.) After which there may be its sideways love story, between Napoleon and his one-time spouse, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). Within the early, promising portion of that narrative, the movie appears to be heading into the territory of Phantom Thread, a have a look at a vainglorious albeit proficient man almost undone by a romantic equal. Kirby, as she is so typically, is a slinky and clever delight, fixing steely gazes flecked with real damage at this weird little man she perhaps comes to like. Or she’s solely in love together with his energy. Or they’re the identical factor.
Napoleon is a demanding and abusive husband, one who expects whole devotion from his spouse. However he additionally retains crawling again, craving extra of no matter mysterious energy Josephine herself possesses. Once more, although, one has to pressure to essentially extract any theme out of all this push and pull. Scott retains the movie awfully stiff; we don’t even get a giant ultimate scene earlier than Josephine’s loss of life from diphtheria. “Yeah, yeah, right here’s that stuff,” Scott appears to say, earlier than but once more turning to a different monumental art-of-war battle scene.
These, after all, are a forte of the director’s, as he has proven from Gladiator to his jumbled however fascinating Kingdom of Heaven and his pleasingly moody tackle Robin Hood. Right here, Scott trades arrows for cannon balls, whizzing and booming throughout fields of the Continent (and, in a single grimly amusing scene of wanton destruction, into the Nice Pyramids of Giza). Horses and males alike are felled in grizzly trend. (The animal wrangling and safekeeping funds on this manufacturing should have been huge.) The Austerlitz sequence is particularly efficient, a horror of snowy fight that sees Napoleon’s enemies fleeing, in horrible futility, throughout a frozen lake. If these are what will get Scott’s blood up, then so be it. Perhaps he can do the American Revolution subsequent.