Tuesday 28 November 2023

Not tonight: "Napoleon"

We saw not a single frame of Stanley Kubrick's long-tended Napoleon project, and yet cinemas across the globe are currently exhibiting two hours and thirty-eight minutes of Ridley Scott's
Napoleon; the question that arises is whether or not the latter constitutes adequate compensation. Certainly Scott - too restless and erratic to have approached the pantheon of great filmmakers, the ad man-turned-businessman director forever looking for the next deal, ready and willing to squander the credit of an Alien on a Prometheus and then an Alien: Covenant - has given us a rowdier, more raucous romp than Kubrick likely would have. Sir Ridley first revealed his hand in the course of a pre-release press tour during which he told historians objecting to his movie's deviations from the established record to "shut the fuck up". Laugh at that all you like, but it strikes me as not so far from chuckling at Michael Gove's pre-Brexit remark about Britain having had enough of experts. In what proves a decidedly post-Brexit Napoleon - two fingers stuck firmly up in the vague direction of the continent - Scott gives us the Emperor as viewed from the perspective of a gruff Northeasterner who grew up on Viz and made a point of only skimreading the official biographies, giving us lots of rutting à la chienne and a devil-may-care attitude to the facts. Initially, at least, the film seems to be proposing some defence of history's Great Men (and Women): a prologue - one of Scott and writer David Scarpa's imaginings - shows the younger Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) watching on disdainfully as a regal Marie-Antoinette is led to the guillotine by extremely revolting peasants. An early sequence in which our hero retakes Toulon from the Brits - by turning an occupied fort against the ships in the harbour it overlooks - betrays some measure of admiration for Napoleon's tactical nous, and reminds us of Scott's gift for onscreen strategies and logistics. Many more big battles lie ahead: there's a reason your dad and everybody else's dad is just itching to fall asleep to Scott's magnum opus several Bank Holidays from now.

Gradually, however, Napoleon shapes up as a diptych, setting its lavish portrait of the Emperor as a fighter against an altogether more withering sketch of Napoleon the lover. This Bonaparte's upward mobility in the military ranks contrasts with his rather more haphazard progress with the fabled Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby, in short, sharp locks that establish her as a comparatively modern gal): from peeping at her across a candlelit salon to pumping indifferently into her in the boudoir and retreating, wounded, as she takes another lover during his overseas campaigns. Even their pillow talk is combative. "I am the most important man in the world!," he bellows. "I am not built like other men!" "You are nothing without me," she retorts. This being un film de Ridley Scott, they're hardly subtle, but the points do land. Napoleon could command the loyalty of tens of thousands of men, but he hadn't the foggiest what to do with this one woman; Joséphine was one territory he couldn't fully conquer, to his eternal regret and chagrin. This ongoing battle of the sexes ensures there's at least one satirical note for every booming cannon. If we understand the bulk of Scott's filmography to have been in some way about the processes of business - starting with the blue-collar carnage of Alien - then Napoleon represents the filmmaker's idea of those moguls who oversee vast empires through a combination of vision, ambition and leadership, yet remain persistently hapless on the homefront. (This Napoleon's solution is to ditch the womanly Joséphine for a younger model, which in the early 19th century could be as #problematic as taking a child bride.) Napoleon is plainly the work of someone who (by Hollywood standards) has been broadly steadfast in marriage, and taken so confidently to fatherhood that several of his offspring have followed him into the family business. It is also, as a result, a rare period drama in which a director can been seen repeatedly and insistently pulling rank on his own subject: two-and-a-half hours in which the 85-year-old Scott, like a pub bore telling you What Gareth Southgate Has Got Wrong, informs us he'd make a far better general, husband and bedmate than his limp-dicked cuck of a protagonist. The prevailing air of hubris might only be admirable if the film were a better deployment of everybody's time and resources.

From its mishmash of accents to the unlikely casting of Miles Jupp as the Emperor of Austria (Brits do it better!), Scott's Napoleon is a hashjob, wilfully self-sabotaging and too restless to hold to any one editorial line for long; even the already much-memed sequence in which Napoleon whines "you think you're so great because you have boats" to the British delegation botches its own comedy by affording the bewigged posho recipient of that punchline the final word. (Here again is the Scott who bungled his way through 2006's singularly unfunny A Good Year. I mean, for heaven's sake Film Twitter: pick worthier heroes.) You spend much of these 168 minutes watching this flea-film leap around from place to place, year to year, between tragedy and farce. As with most Scott projects, there is a director's cut in the offing - some four-plus hours, headed to Apple TV+ in the near-future - and you will almost certainly be better off holding out for that than making do with the glorified trailer now playing on a screen near you: that version will almost certainly smooth the transitions, build up the supporting parts and allow more than the occasional scene to develop into actual drama. (As it is, we've been left in the same position we were in with 2005's Kingdom of Heaven and 2013's The Counselor: only a masochist could want more of what's been promised by the theatrical cut.) For now, Scott has turned in the assiduously lit auteur variant of one of those TV movies fashioned from a pre-existing miniseries: a work that charges onwards down the narrative line, jettisoning depth, weight and viewer engagement as it yomps along. Some of it (the grim spectacle of Austerlitz and Waterloo) still holds the eye, but a lot more falls flat (cf. the newspaper headline that refers to Joséphine ungallantly - and un-Gallic-ly - as "Boney's Old Bird") and the central performance never coheres because Phoenix is playing multiple Emperors simultaneously and can't connect the dots by himself. Nothing here overturns my conviction that the one masterpiece of Scott's late period has been TV's The Good Fight, to which he merely lent his name as executive producer. (Another day, another deal.) Despite his tipping of a tricorned hat, despite a lavish red-carpet premiere in Paris, it turns out even the French don't like this Napoleon that much - but then, set against Abel Gance's monumental 1927 telling of the same tale, a film such as this would only ever resemble pipsqueakery. Fuck 'em, Scott would doubtless growl. For better and in many ways worse, his Napoleon is a fuck 'em sort of movie.

Napoleon is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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