Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, starring Joaquin Phoenix, has a running time of two hours and 40 minutes, which is scant by today’s standards, but don’t worry: a four hour-plus director’s cut is on its way. So this is Scott’s Napoleon Abridged, you could say, and it does have the feel of a film that’s been scissored to death. The battle sequences are spectacular but the jackhammer cutting-style – hang on, how did he get from there to here? – means the storytelling is hurried and confusing.
I’m not too sure about this Napoleon either. Did you know one of the greatest military leaders in world history was essentially a man-child? Phoenix, always a strong, intense screen presence, plays Napoleon as petulant rather than as a brilliant strategist.
It’s not a cradle-to-grave biopic, as Napoleon is a young man when we first encounter him and there is no spooling back in time. ‘He came from nothing. He conquered everything,’ says the film’s tagline. But what was the ‘nothing’? What was the landscape that formed him? We’re never told. The film opens as he arrives in revolutionary Paris to witness the beheading of Marie Antoinette, which he never did, but Scott, and his screenwriter (David Scarpa) seem happy to play fast and loose with the facts. (‘Were you there? No, so eff off,’ has been Scott’s response to historians.)
This Napoleon, who has an American accent, is ascending the military political ladder fast due to his war acumen. An early sequence shows us the Siege of Toulon, and I hope, pray, I never again see a horse’s chest blown open by a cannonball. Other spectacular set-pieces include Austerlitz and Waterloo, where Rupert Everett hams it up as the Duke of Wellington. They are Scott’s artistic vision.