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More tension in the bedroom than battlefield – Beyond Bollywood

Director Ridley Scott, writer David Scarpa’s film oscillates between the French military general/ emperor’s professional and personal conflicts. Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby’s stellar show drives this near three-hour marathon.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️ (3 / 5)

By Mayur Lookhar

What kind of a Commander is one who shuts his ears at the sound of canon fire? The bicorne (hat) comes in handy too. The Corsican-born Bonaparte rose to becoming the military general, and later, the Emperor of France. More than palace, he loved the battlefield. Of course, he cherished the bicorne on his head more than the crown. In the most difficult battle of his life, the Corsican is caught snoozing on his feet. His eyes might be shut but under that bicorne, the military general is plotting an unlikely win. The bicorne is inseparable at last breath too. Bonaparte was born to battle. Did he live another life?

At 85, turning 86 on 30 November, veteran Anglo-American filmmaker Ridley Scott decides to make a film on the French military general, emperor. A British born, American filmmaker helming a film on one of Great Britain’s most hated adversaries. It has its Waterloo moment, but then why tell the Napoleon story? Is it then one of those typical cultural warfare on a historical adversary, hostile nation? (There perhaps is still a general dislike between the British and the French). During a peace effort, his foe chides how the French fight to steal, while the British fight for honour. Never one to take a backward step, Napoleon [Joaquin Phoenix] hits back, “In France, we fight for what he lack. (By that count), the British lack honour”. Touche!

Scott’s film, penned by David Scarpa, shows Napoleon’s disdain for the British, but more than the battles, this 170-minute marathon gives an insight in to the personal space of the former French Consul / Emperor. Napoleon [2023] pendulates between the battlefield and the bedroom. Unforgiving, relentless on the battle field, Bonaparte shared a complex relationship with his former wife Josephine de Beauharnais [Vanessa Kirby]. This was a saga that had love, lust, letters, and longing, even after their divorce.  “You’re nothing without me,” the duo didn’t shy from shooting harsh words.  Here’s a commander/emperor rushing back home to confront his wife over the nasty rumours, In the period, aggrieved emperors wouldn’t have hesitated in beheading their queen. The Napoleon-Josephine story survived the gossip. But there’s one thing that every king yearns for – heir.  That was the breaking point in this marriage. During the royal parting, the frustrated emperor slaps the empress for not saying her choreographed lines well. The teary Josephine does as her emperor commands. Phew, this man is a far cry from the Corsican commander who fell in love at first sight with the aristocratic widow.

Ah, these revered military generals/dictators/emperors, how should history remember them? Scott and Scarpa’s Napoleon [2023] is endearing to begin with. Bonaparte supported the French Revolution out of his dislike for aristocracy. Power though tests the strongest idealists too. Ironically, his own accession came via a coup d’état. He would soon anoint himself as emperor. The coronation ceremony was a pomp show- as close as it gets to the famous Jacques-Louis David painting. A frightened Pope Pius V11 not wasting any time in offering his blessings, and hailing the emperor as the greatest. Isn’t this show of vanity, power? Then in a dining table argument, a man who once despised aristocracy, proudly states, “Fate has brought this lamb chop to me”. Fame, power can corrupt even the most noble soul. An impulsive, blood thirsty military general was easy meat.

Phoenix displayed the same impulse, insecurity as Scott’s Commodus in Gladiator [2000]. There’s the trademark Phoenix chortle too. This reviewer is never a fan of any emperor, military dictator, but it’s the inimitable charm, sophistication that draws one to Phoenix. The Academy Award winning actor portrays three decades of Bonaparte’s life from age 20-51, but Phoenix looks 49 in every phase. Scott’s representation of Bonaparte certainly has its element of fiction. The military veteran is self-assuring, but Bonaparte, the husband is more vulnerable. Phoenix finely portrays his complex character.

Vanessa Kirby and Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon [2023]

Vanessa Kirby is so convincing that one can overlook Josephine’s act of indiscretion. Submissive to begin with, it’s fascinating how the power equation begins to shift in the Napoleon-Josephine relation. Though tumultuous, there’s a two-way addiction even long after this marriage is over. Kirby is so good that perhaps it would have been fitting to call this film Napoleon and Josephine. She doesn’t let the screentime affect her performance.

Read about the wars in the history books. Your reviewer has never found wars to be ‘cool’. Ridley Scott, his action choreographer, cinematographer though finely craft the war sequences, especially the warfare of the time. There is plenty of death, but Scott largely stays clear of any bloodbath.

Clearly, though a historical epic of a fierce foe, Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is another one of those compelling Hollywood cultural warfare films. Scott is mindful of publishing the estimated deadly numbers [millions] in the Napoleon reign of terror. We hope that one day, the West, Europe would craft a similar epic on the reign of the Churchills, the Trumans, and past imperialists.

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