Saturday, November 25, 2023

Napoleon

Movie Name:
Napoleon
Year of Release: 2023
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Rupert Everett, Mark Bonnar, Paul Rhys, Ben Miles, Riana Duce, Ludivine Sagnier, Edouard Philipponnat, Miles Jupp, Scott Handy, Youssef Kerkour, John Hollingworth, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Sinead Cusack, Harriet Bunton, Julian Wadham, Catherine Walker
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
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Synopsis and Review
The prolific Ridley Scott is back, following the troubled releases he had in 2021, with "The Last Duel" and "House of Gucci" both failing to find support with audiences (though at least "The Last Duel" had some middling reviews). He reunites once again with screenwriter David Scarpa whom he worked with on "All the Money in the World". This time around the focus of their narrative is Napoleon Bonaparte, whom we first encounter witnessing the beheading of Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution. With the incentive and support from Paul Barras, Napoleon manages to storm the city of Toulon and expel the British from that port. He's rewarded for his leadership and soon while in Paris, becomes acquainted with Jos├ęphine de Beauharnais, a young widow who captures his attention and heart. They soon marry, and while profoundly in love with her, they are unable to have children. Napoleon is soon in Egypt, expanding the French Empire, in an expedition where he's a victor. He learns however that Josephine has been unfaithful, and decides to return to Paris. They quarrel and while the relationship almost dissolves, they manage to stay together. In the meantime Bonaparte is being groomed by others in the Republic, to effectively take over, much like classic Rome, and be part of a triumvirate. That soon happens, and Bonaparte becomes First Consul. His ambitions keep propelling him, soon landing him with the title of Emperor, eventually leading him to battle the Austrians and the Russians, whom he defeats at the Battle of Austerlitz. While his military excursions prove successful, at home the friction increases, since Josephine is unable to get pregnant, and Napoleon soon discovers the issue doesn't lie with him, since he impregnates a young woman. He divorces Josephine, though his passion for her does not waver. 
These days I go into Ridley Scott's films with a certain amount of trepidation, since most of his features have been in my opinion, an array of missed opportunities. The latest of his cinematic experiences I've actually enjoyed was "The Martian", adapted from the book by Andy Weir. I've come to realize that the most successful films from this director, aren't just the ones with solid scripts (the "Blade Runner" script had its fair share of issues, and it's a great film), but the ones where he manages to bring the environment/context in which his characters live in, as an additional character of the feature itself. He's not a director particularly worried in tapping the undercurrents or subtleties of characters, he paints with broad strokes, giving the central characters what he believes to be enough to make them interesting, but always interested in the larger canvas. The problem with tackling a complex character such as Napoleon, isn't solely deciding on the time period that is going to be the focus for the feature, it's how to bring such a divisive character to life, making sure that this persona, his passions, his abilities get properly illustrated (or at least hinted at). This script sadly fails to deliver across the board: this feature isn't meant to be by any means a documentary but the character is never given much in terms of arc, or for that matter, in terms of showcasing his accomplishments beyond what is depicted in some wars. The supporting characters get even less of a dimension in this epic: Josephine is showcased rather passively, including understanding her passions and what instigates her to adultery. And the political manipulators who surround Bonaparte are also minimized in their own motivations and even interactions (actually, come to think of it, the characters around Napoleon seem to be always in motion). For a film well beyond two hours, it brings no insight into the love story between these two characters, and as far as the battle scenes, they feel repetitive and already better explored in other Ridley Scott's films, such as "Kingdom of Heaven" and even the celebrated "Gladiator". Joaquin Phoenix as brilliant as he is, sadly composes this character with a detachment that is unlike him, opting to make the character rather observing and almost soporific. The supporting cast sadly has little to do, including Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Sinead Cusack and Rupert Everett. The production team is also not that great, with Darius Wolski's cinematography not really working (the gray tones are just done at this point), though Janty Yates and David Crossman's costumes are impeccable. Oh and a personal pet peeve: this is indeed a film about an historical French figure, but that doesn't mean the film has to highlight some french songs to rub it in to the audience (we get it, Napoleon Bonaparte is French). It's not a disaster, but it's not a very interesting film either. 

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