7 December 2023
Ridley Scott’s epic new movie.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Ridley Scott – the genius director of such classics as Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator and The Martian – has made quite a few duds in recent years (see this column’s review of The Last Duel, issue 298, 28.10.21, and let’s not mention his Robin Hood). So it was with high hopes of a return to form that this critic went to see his latest movie, the much-heralded big screen epic Napoleon. Alas, the disappointment. Ok, it’s not a Christmas turkey, but there’s a whiff of sage and onion stuffing and cranberry sauce about it nevertheless.
Much has already been made of the film’s historical inaccuracies. Some of them are trivial – does it really matter if the young Napoleon couldn’t have been present at Marie Antoinette’s execution because he was miles away from Paris at the time? Others, however, are more serious. Scott’s Waterloo, for instance, is a weird and almost wilful farrago of historical untruths from beginning to end: the French infantry attack in line (no, they attacked in column, as ever, albeit a modified column, wider than it was deep, a column attacking sideways on, as it were); the French artillery inflict devastating damage on the entrenched British infantry (no, Wellington simply withdrew his infantry to just below and behind the top of the ridge they were occupying and got them to lie down, so the damage was minimal); Wellington sends infantry against cavalry (never! suicidal!); Napoleon fights with bloodied sabre in the midst of the Imperial Guards’ attack (no, his staff physically held him back); etc etc etc.
Scott’s rebuttal of historians’ criticism (“Well, were you there?”) doesn’t hold water here, as plenty of people who were there at Waterloo as witnesses or actual combatants did leave detailed first-hand accounts of the battle. It’s difficult to understand why he played fast and loose with the facts. And the two fiercest and most critical and dramatic scenes of fighting, in and around the Hougoumont manor house and the La Haye Sainte farmhouse, don’t even appear.
But the historical inaccuracies are mere pedantic quibbles compared to the film’s real faults. The film is essentially a love story. It’s the story of Napoleon and Josephine. There are two problems with this. The first is that Napoleon in love is the least significant and most ordinary part of this extraordinary man’s extraordinary story. We do see something of the extraordinary Napoleon as well – Napoleon at war – but we see nothing of Napoleon the extraordinary statesman and man of the Enlightenment, the most significant part of his story. Nothing of the man who overhauled the state bureaucracy, reached a Concordat with the Pope, created a uniform set of weights and measures, established the Bank of France, codified French law, staged international industrial exhibitions, centralised education, created the lycées etc etc.
And second, the love story isn’t very well done. The script is poor, and the poorest lines are the ones in the scenes between Napoleon and Josephine. Vanessa Kirby does what she can with the part, but there’s not much for her to do. Neither character seems to age at all in the film, or change or develop, in spite of its twenty year span. Away from the battlefields the film is rather static and undramatic, with people simply standing or sitting around and talking (and eating and drinking, more often than not, as if in a desperate attempt to give the characters just a bit of animation). Two last pedantic quibbles: at one stage Napoleon is shown pining and faithful in Egypt while Josephine is being unfaithful in Paris – in fact he took a mistress (a fellow officer’s wife) while he was in Egypt; and Napoleon and Josephine are more or less the same age in the film but in reality she was older than him.
But the film’s biggest problem is with Napoleon himself. Whatever your opinion of this great, terrible, controversial Corsican giant (this critic has already put his cards on the table – see 18 Brumaire, issue 278, 06.05.21, for an account of Napoleon as a ruthless, unprincipled, self-serving opportunist, an irresponsible general who destroyed and deserted not one, not two, but three French armies), he was hugely intelligent, relentlessly energetic, extremely ambitious and irresistibly charismatic, the man who delivered “La Gloire” to the French people by the lorry-load. Strangely, the brilliant Joaquin Phoenix (who can forget him as the Joker?) manages none of this. His Napoleon is a one-note performance, curiously flat and under-powered; he’s merely grumpy and tired throughout, and even occasionally ridiculous.
Ridely Scott was eighty-six last week, so we should be grateful that he’s still making films at all. But he’s more productive than any other director, young or old, so there’s still hope that we could yet see a late return to form. It’s curious that his career so far has been book-ended by two movies set in the Napoleonic wars. His very first film was The Duellists, a jewel of a film, small-scale compared to Napoleon but a beautiful, finely-crafted and gripping piece of cinematic story-telling based on a Joseph Conrad short story. So while we wait for that return to form, this critic suggests that you don’t go and see this master’s latest epic but watch or re-watch his modest debut instead.