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‘Napoleon’ Review: History with a Twist

Dir. Ridley Scott — 3 Stars

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Napoleon Bonaparte in Ridley Scott's "Napoleon."
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Napoleon Bonaparte in Ridley Scott's "Napoleon." By Courtesy of EPK.TV
By Courtesy of Hannah E. Gadway, Crimson Staff Writer

In the first act of Ridley Scott’s newest film, “Napoleon,” the French general does something strangely anti-historical: fire a cannon at the tip of the Great Pyramids. In the next scene, he stands on a step stool to peer at a mummy, because he’s too short to see it from the ground. “Napoleon” is a historical film, but as these scenes show, it is also a quasi-absurdist retelling of Bonaparte’s life. In general, Scott’s epic drama follows the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte while giving special attention to his complicated relationship with Empress Josephine. It shuffles between the serious and the ridiculous with a constant tongue-in-cheek glee. The film’s varying attitude toward history may turn away some history buffs, and Scott’s loose use of accuracy detracts from the film, but “Napoleon” is, overall, a movie that successfully differentiates itself from other historical dramas.

Scott’s varying attitudes toward depicting historical accuracy may give some viewers whiplash. On the one hand, the film has incredible costuming and set design — each outfit is meticulously period-accurate and the French palaces are decadently detailed. Despite paying attention to visual realism, the narrative often veers away from historical accuracy in a distractingly extreme manner. Scott plays fast and loose with history, sometimes making sure that every detail of a battle scene is perfect, while other times creating falsehoods for narrative purposes (Napoleon slaps his wife at their public divorce, for example, which never happened). Scott is obviously trying to paint Napoleon in a light that differs from the cold glare of history, but his inconsistency in depicting the French emperor may trouble some audiences.

The most distracting aspect of this historical film is Joaquin Phoenix’s casting as Napoleon. Bonaparte was only 24 years old when he captured Toulon, but in the film, he is depicted by the nearly 50-year-old Phoenix. The makeup and special effects departments put little noticeable effort into making Phoenix look younger, which takes away from the impressiveness of Bonaparte’s decisive victory. Additionally, there were some problems with the casting of Empress Josephine. Josephine was her husband’s senior by six years, but the actress depicting her in the film, Vanessa Kirby, is nearly fifteen years younger than Phoenix. Since Josephine and Napoleon’s tumultuous relationship dynamic depends on factors including age and class, this casting decision creates narrative confusion.

Still, Phoenix’s performance proves why Scott may have been so willing to lay aside the age difference. Phoenix brings a steady energy to his performance of Napoleon and an eye for detail. In Phoenix’s hands, the French emperor loses some of his grand energy and appears manic and unendingly peculiar. He builds mannerisms throughout the film that will be hard to forget — a tendency to cover his ears during cannon fire, a penchant for mid-battle naps, and a habit of creepily sniffing Josephine’s letters. It is these small moments, as well as his epic speeches, that make Phoenix melt seamlessly into his role. The film benefits from him at its core, despite the headache its historical inaccuracies may cause for history buffs.

If Phoenix’s depiction of Bonaparte sounds absurd, it’s because it absolutely is. “Napoleon” is aware of how far away it wanders from the normal historical narrative and plays upon its unique tone. Instead of focusing on Napoleon’s military genius or effect on French history, Scott shows his pathetic interactions with women and general awkwardness. Jokes get just as much screen time as great speeches — like the Duke of Wellington smacking his head on his own ship’s roof due to his height. Scott’s combination of humor and historical drama humanizes the legendary figure and fully shows his strangeness. Scott also adds dimension to Napoleon’s legacy by showing how many people died under his watch, as at the film’s end, a title card reports that Bonaparte’s military escapades resulted in the deaths of over 3 million Frenchmen.

“Napoleon” is a distinctive film, defiant of the traditions established in dramatic and historical genres. It unapologetically stands against featuring one characterization of the leader, instead exploring different ways of telling Bonaparte’s larger-than-life story. This shifting style makes “Napoleon” a confusing film in some ways, one that is unsure of its dedication to historical accuracy. Yet, Scott’s strange perspective on Bonaparte also makes “Napoleon” appear confident and exciting, because it is simply so different. This film will not become Scott’s new “Alien” or “Gladiator,” but it is sure to leave a mark on its viewers.

—Staff writer Hannah E. Gadway can be reached at hannah.gadway@thecrimson.com.

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