Napoleon review – Joaquin Phoenix makes a magnificent emperor in thrilling biopic

Many directors have tried following Napoleon where the paths of glory lead, and maybe it is only defiant defeat that is really glorious. But Ridley Scott – the Wellington of cinema – has created an outrageously enjoyable cavalry charge of a movie, a full-tilt biopic of two and a half hours in which Scott doesn’t allow his troops to get bogged down mid-gallop in the muddy terrain of either fact or metaphysical significance, the tactical issues that have defeated other film-makers.

Scott cheekily imagines Napoleon firing on the pyramids in the Egyptian campaign as well as witnessing the execution of Marie Antoinette (but not the humiliation of Louis XVI by the Tuileries mob, which he might actually have seen). Out of deference moreover, Scott and his screenwriter David Scarpa suppress all mention of Napoleon’s reintroduction of slavery into the French colonies. But above all, there’s a deliciously insinuating portrayal of the doomed emperor from Joaquin Phoenix, whose derisive face suits the framing of a bicorne hat and jaunty tricolour cockade. Phoenix plays Napoleon as a military genius and lounge lizard peacock who is incidentally no slouch on horseback. Others might show Napoleon as a dreamy loner, but for Scott he is one half of a rackety power couple: passionately, despairingly in love with Vanessa Kirby’s pragmatically sensual Josephine. Scott makes this warring pair the Burton and Taylor of imperial France.

Rod Steiger gave us Napoleon as the world-weary gangboss exchanging barbs with his consigliere in Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo in 1970; Herbert Lom found him a dwindling absurdity in King Vidor’s War and Peace from 1956, unable to believe no one is there to submit to him in the Russian capital; for Albert Dieudonné in Abel Gance’s silent masterpiece of 1927 he was ascetic and gaunt like Joan of Arc or Rasputin. But for Phoenix he is the arch satirist and grinning mastermind, the outsider, the brilliant observer and exploiter of other people’s weaknesses, the proto-capitalist entrepreneur, grabbing power, boosting confidence, bolstering the printed paper money. Later people might be nicknamed the Napoleon of Crime, but Phoenix’s Napoleon is already that.

Scott stages a thrilling action set piece for Napoleon’s first great achievement as a young artilleryman: the audacious attack on the British at Toulon in 1793, which cemented his reputation as a strategic master and a hater of the English. Scott bookends the whole thing imagining a defeated Napoleon’s interview with Wellington aboard the HMS Bellerophon, insouciantly congratulating him on the quality of breakfast served to the Royal Navy.

It is course Britain’s sea power that gives Napoleon the nearest thing possible to an inferiority complex; Phoenix gets a big laugh when he petulantly whines at the British ambassador: “You think you’re so great because you have boats!” For a second, Napoleon becomes Phoenix’s creepy young Commodus, from Scott’s Gladiator. There’s also a fair bit of Commodus in Napoleon’s auto-coronation scene as the new emperor who realises that the crown does not quite fit atop his Roman-style laurels. And with the help of his patron and friend Barras (Tahar Rahim), the young Napoleon rides the opposing stormfronts and triangulates the violent impulses of revolution and royalism and becomes himself the distillation of pure power, ruthlessly suppressing the mob with his “whiff of grapeshot”, which Scott shows us graphically.

As symbol and icon, Napoleon has always been seductive; since Tolstoy, the abandonment of Moscow and Napoleon’s subsequent retreat have been symbolic of Mother Russia’s miraculous deliverance, analogous to the resurrection itself. Hitler was fascinated by him; but the postwar cult of Napoleon lives on for those who want to annul the horrors of the 20th century and revive what they take to be the romantic adventure of warfare. For Kubrick in his famously abandoned film project, Napoleon might perhaps have been expected to bear the weight of all kinds of significance. But this isn’t Ridley Scott’s intent; he doesn’t detain the audience with metaphysical meaning and certainly doesn’t withhold the old-fashioned pleasures of spectacle and excitement. Phoenix is the key to it all: a performance as robust as the glass of burgundy he knocks back: preening, brooding, seething and triumphing.

• Napoleon is released on 22 November in the UK and US, and on 23 November in Australia.