Yes tonight Josephine

Will Ferris
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Napoleon (15, 157 Minutes)

I had absolutely no idea who Napoleon Bonaparte was save for the big hat, high waist trousers and short guy complex (his height was somewhere between 5ft 2in and 5ft 7in). Ridley Scott’s bold biopic of the infamous Corsican is an exhilarating history lesson which spares little time championing a “legend” and instead gives us an interpretation, if not an exposé, of the mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians all for the sake of one man’s endless pursuit of power and conquest. Is it any surprise he was a hero to Adolf Hitler?

Starting in 1793, the French monarchy are guillotined and the people’s dream of revolution becomes a nightmare as Robespierre’s reign of terror brings mass public executions and corruption. After his victory over the English at Toulon, army officer Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix – 5ft 8in) seeks to bring stability to the country and quashes every form of rebellion.

Rising through the ranks to become a popular and highly intelligent military strategist, he becomes madly infatuated with the widowed Joséphine de Beauharanis (Vanessa Kirby – 5ft 7in), marries her and then sets his sights on delivering French victories across Europe, most notably at the Battle of the Pyramids and then against a Russian/Austrian alliance at Austerlitz.

But Napoleon’s lust for power is relentless and he soon throws all sense of politics and revolution out the window to become the self-proclaimed Emperor of France.

The dilemma filmmakers face in making a biopic is how they present their subject. As a historical figure, Napoleon is seen as a leader who met his inevitable downfall after the defeat at Waterloo. However, his victories across the years were a touch of genius. This was a man who knew the art of warfare and had an insatiable taste for power.

Strip away the majestic victories in battle and you have Phoenix’s brilliant performance as an awkward, snivelling manchild mad with contempt for other world leaders and plagued by a toxic jealousy of his wife’s lovers.

The contrast between orchestrating the brutal defeats of European armies and skulking around his palace as a mummy’s boy, begging his wife to satisfy his lust – which leads to some hilariously pathetic sex scenes – is wonderful.

In this marriage, we are not witnessing a simple romance. This is a complicated, volatile relationship between two people whose conflicts were borderline abusive and yet historians will still claim to this day that the two were deeply in love.

Bonaparte’s second wife, the mother of his children, only appears in one scene such is her insignificance to him. Even after his abrupt divorce from Joséphine becaue of her inability to give him an heir, he still finds himself writing to her every day, longing for her company and love. Such is her promise during their marriage, which Kirby delivers so expertly. “You are nothing without me, and I am nothing without you”.

This is a magnificent piece of cinema with a runtime which, although lengthy, keeps within Sir Ridley’s self imposed three-hour “bum ache”barrier (a four-hour version will stream on subscription TV shortly) and yet keeps you immersed throughout.

The scenes don’t drag, the action is superb in its graphic, gritty nastiness and the politics of one man’s wild, ruthless lust for power is extremely entertaining. It looks and feels like the blockbuster hits of Scott’s heyday.

Sure, there are a couple of historical inaccuracies here and there, but as Ridley so bluntly puts it “Excuse me, mate, were you there? No? Well, shut the f!@k up then!”

RATING: 9/10

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