Napoleon movie review: Joaquin Phoenix's frisky French emperor is upstaged by his Josephine

Well, blimey: boning sure does play a big part in this biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte. Perhaps weary of the fact that Spielberg is readying his seven-part HBO series based on Stanley Kubrick’s infamous script – not to mention Abel Gance’s 330-minute silent eponymous 1927 epic, 1967’s seven-hour War And Peace and plenty of others – Ridley Scott has gone for a different flavour: two and a half hours that could, and maybe should, be titled Napoleon et Joséphine. Or maybe even just Joséphine.

This is a film that has its central General, at the critical moments of his most famous conflicts, agonising over what to write to the love of his life. “Tell me there are no snakes in your bed, inside what is mine?” he purrs obsessively as thousands of troops wait on his orders. There are as many sex scenes as there are battles, and quite outrageous (and often kinky) they are too.

It might be that Scott was slightly burned by the ridicule House of Gucci’s Cornetto ad accents faced – “It’s-a time-a too-a take out-a de trash!” – because here Joaquin Phoenix, as Napoleon, speaks as he does in real life, i.e. in American.

Pretty much everyone else, meanwhile, communicates in 19th century English – a full battalion’s-worth of Brit TV regulars feature, from Ben ‘forever Patrick from Coupling’ Miles to Miles ‘John Duggan from The Thick of It’ Jupp – with the exception of a few Austrians who, weirdly, still speak English, but with an Austrian twang. The newspapers, too, are in English: "Boney’s old bird caught out of the nest, again," reads one headline.

And yet none of this matters too much because the relationship between Boney and said old bird is what Napoleon – and if Napoleon is to be believed, the actual Napoleon – is chiefly concerned with. Phoenix, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny and chilling in the same scene, is as compelling as he always is: even almost saving risible lines like “Destiny has brought me this lamp chop!”

 (Film Handout)
(Film Handout)

But it’s Vanessa Kirby who, much like Ryan Gosling in Barbie, upstages her title character. Scott has said he hopes to release a four-and-a-half-hour cut of his film on Apple TV that delves deeper into the psyche of Empress Joséphine and you can see why: there is an electricity to her scenes that makes the grand, elaborate battle sequences feel drab by comparison.

Conflict-wise, it’s a greatest hits-only affair: so Toulon (where we start), Austerlitz, Waterloo and a couple of others. The campaign in Egypt is featured briefly, chiefly you suspect because cannonballs being fired into the pyramids looks really, really cool.

But it’s odd and frankly a bit of a shame that the trailer largely sells Napoleon as a standard issue war epic because that’s not what it is at all. Connor Roy and any other -ologists will likely pick all kinds of historical accuracy holes in this. Everyone else will be waiting for the war bits to end so they can get back to the more exciting and interesting stuff.

158 mins, cert 15

In cinemas from November 24