Napoleon Movie Review: A glorious look at the absurd extents of ambition and power

Napoleon Movie Review: A glorious look at the absurd extents of ambition and power

Rating:(3.5 / 5)

According to neurobiology, memories are not perfect recreations of the past. They are reconstructions that largely rely upon our emotions at the time of our recollections. In a way, cinema, which acts as memories of our collective human experience, also does the same. At this point of time in history, it just so happens that this is the version of Napoleon Bonaparte that we choose to etch in our collective memories. However, this is not an excuse for the historical inaccuracies in the film, alleged by historians. Rather, it is a proclamation of director Ridley Scott’s ability to leave an indelible mark in cinematic memory, through Napoleon, despite its shortcomings.

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim

At first glance, Napoleon tells the story of an ambitious young soldier, who rises up the ranks to become an emperor, and then succumbs to the undying fires of his own ambition. On the other hand, the film is also a sublime peek into the psychology of an intense personality with an unhealthy attachment towards every woman in his life. Scott chooses to play out every scene between Napoleon and his lover Josephine brimming with sexual energy and an intense attachment. However, what sets it apart from other portrayals of such relationships between powerful couples is how it borders on delightful absurdity at times. Whether it is the scene where Napoleon—in full army uniform—requests sex from Josephine by mumbling like a child, or when a heated dinner table argument ends with the emperor and empress throwing food at each other.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon Bonaparte like an impudent, petty child and it is glorious to behold. In one scene, after being disrespected by the Russian Tsar, Napoleon storms his way to a Russian official and after having registered his rage, takes a pause and then says, “You think you're so great because you have boats?” The audacity to show the brattish, petty side of one of the greatest military commanders in history, is not what you would expect from a conventional biopic and that could irk people who desire high-fidelity in their historical dramas. While Phoenix easily devours every frame he is in, Vanessa Kirby somehow leaves a strong impression, with a performance that overpowers everyone except Phoenix. Kirby’s Josephine is every bit as petty as her husband and it is amazing how Scott seems to mirror Napoleon’s unhealthy obsession with power in politics with the same kind of obsessive, all-consuming power dynamics with his wife. Every time Napoleon is jealous or prideful, we get a line of dialogue immediately afterwards where he comments about how he is not jealous and is quick to accept his errors. Ridley Scott effortlessly wrings out irony and absurdity by playing with timing and through that makes his commentary on this deeply fascinating personality.

Even as someone not well versed in Napoleon’s history, you could see how the film glosses over potentially important facets of the character. For example, Napoleon is presented as an intimidating personality, and is even called a tyrant at one point and yet enjoys love from the masses. However, it is never spelled out how he wins over them despite earning the title of a tyrant. Even with a healthy runtime, it feels like the film rushes past us. Some affecting frames, which look like Renaissance paintings linger in our memory while other sequences are drained of colour, energy, and intent. Once again, Ridley Scott proves to us that he is a master at capturing expansive battle sequences. Throughout the film, the veteran filmmaker makes his commentary on Napoleon in his own playful way, in as many ways as he can. It could be as simple as Napoleon always wearing his uniform wherever he goes, clutching on to his image as a warrior, or his flamboyant bicorne dominating almost every frame it is in.

Upon closer inspection, Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is not just a character study of this bulldog of a French emperor. He merely exists as a tool for Scott to highlight how power is born out of pettiness and ambition. The film shows us how something as absurd and childish as pettiness along with an honourable virtue like ambition, makes up the DNA of almost every power structure. This curious observation extends beyond Napoleon Bonaparte in the film, albeit to a lesser extent. From commoners to aristocrats to royalty, everyone squabbles for power in their own way. As we are amused by Napoleon’s relentless obsession with power and legacy, somewhere in the film, we take a step back and realise that every other character in the film is almost the same, only to a far lesser extent. We just focus on Napoleon because he has such an intense and memorable personality. Napoleon is a tool that Ridley Scott uses to make his commentary on the absurdity entrenched in the power play that we are all constantly engaged in.

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