Napoleon, review: blunt-force charisma from Joaquin Phoenix in Ridley Scott’s dark, epic biopic

Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon in Ridley Scott's new biopic
Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon in Ridley Scott's new biopic - Kevin Baker

If, at 85, Ridley Scott has reached the final season of his filmmaking career, Napoleon is the ideal work of wintry grandeur to mark it. Scott’s 28th feature is a magnificently hewn slab of dad cinema with a chill wind whistling over its battlefields and round its bones: its palette is so cold, even the red in the tricolore is often the shade of dried blood.

Spanning 32 years, from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to its title character’s death on St Helena in 1821, it casts Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise, reign and downfall as both a prickly psychodrama and a sweeping military epic, in which the intimate lives of its central players and the fate of France itself become instantly and anxiously entwined.

Napoleon himself is played with startling blunt-force charisma by Joaquin Phoenix, who is working again with Scott for the first time since 2000’s Gladiator. Phoenix’s undisguised soft Californian accent is one of a number of details that might irk historical sticklers – television’s Dan Snow has already chimed in with a list of inaccuracies, to which Scott’s not unreasonable response was “get a life”. But on screen it’s oddly ideal, reinforcing the idea that this Corsican roughneck can never fully settle into the role for which history has him picked out.

We get the measure of the man almost instantly at the Siege of Toulon, as the French Republican forces lay siege to the British-occupied harbour fort. In the dead of night, as Napoleon leads the advance, a cannonball tears through the shoulder of his horse – the film earns its 15 certificate fast – though almost before he hits the ground he hurriedly barks “I’m OK,” and strides on, shaken but resolute, and smeared with the blood of his steed.

The whole sequence is astonishing – mounted on a scale and pegged out with a clarity that makes the filmmaking itself feel like the work of a supreme military tactician. But extraordinarily, Scott keeps on bettering it.

Vanessa Kirby as Joséphine and Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon, in Napoleon
Vanessa Kirby as Joséphine and Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon, in Napoleon - Aidan Monaghan

Waterloo, which serves as a climax (with Rupert Everett a treat as Wellington) stops your breath with pure spectacle. Yet the extraordinary toll of the battle in terms of both lives and basic humanity lost, is at the forefront of every shot choice. (Whatever CG is here – and given its sheer magnitude, there must be quite a bit – has scarcely felt less like ones and zeroes.) And during Austerlitz, as the Russian troops are forced by France on to the thin ice then bombarded with cannon fire, you can almost sense a godlike pair of compasses spinning overhead, strategising every move.

David Scarpa’s screenplay paints Napoleon as a master tactician, but it also ties his thirst for conquest to his frustrated desire, once he’s been crowned Emperor, to father an heir. The womb of his first wife Joséphine (a brilliantly sultry and shrewd Vanessa Kirby) is where the line of succession should spring, yet it remains the one piece of terrain resistant to his claims.

“It’s yours,” Joséphine purrs, while pulling what we’ll tactfully call a “Basic Instinct” early in their courtship. Yet biology has other ideas, and this emasculation only stokes up his thirst for conquest elsewhere. Unexpectedly, it also furnishes the film with some of its more comic moments: during a squabble at a society dinner over his apparent infertility, Napoleon splutters that providence is on his side, raging: “Destiny has brought me to this pork chop!”

You wouldn’t describe the film as funny – and in its (admittedly rare) quieter moments, it can perhaps feel a little cool and staid. But Phoenix’s sore-thumb manner makes his loopier lines land well, while the supporting cast is packed with the sort of characterful faces from which a squint or a frown can be all a scene needs to lighten the mood. Paul Rhys’s venom-laced smile as Talleyrand proves a low-key secret weapon, and I hooted at Ian McNeice’s Louis XVIII, whose hairstyle and lapdog look separated at birth.

An ironic coda on Saint Helena takes Phoenix to where this role was perhaps always going to lead him: the crazy guy in the asylum who thinks he’s Napoleon. But only a true master general could corral a piece of cinema this rolling and rich.

In cinemas now