You want a historical epic? Only one name springs to mind. Ridley Scott. From Gladiator onwards, he’s been keeping the genre alive more or less single-handedly with his expansive, spectacular vision and absorbing characters. True, some of the films have been better than others, but the ambition behind his latest is only matched by its title character. Napoleon.
His version of the life of the Corsican corporal who trampled over most of 19th Europe has the lot — action, excitement, romance, tragedy — as well as the all-important combination of the public and private. Napoleon’s military career lasted just over 20 years, during which he invaded country after country, displaying a real genius for military tactics but eventually falling prey to General Winter, Russia’s not-so-secret but greatest weapon.
Even exile on Elba didn’t hold him back: his escape saw him on the rampage again for a hundred days, only to be defeated by a coalition of forces led by the Duke Of Wellington. He was just 51 when he died, again in exile, this time on St Helena.
But you can’t have Napoleon’s public life without his private one — in other words, his marriage to Josephine Beauharnais. Scott merges the two almost seamlessly, giving us not just a picture of the intensity between them, but also a view of a couple where it’s transparently clear who is the real driving force. His choice of actors for the roles is perfection, with the brooding darkness of Joaquin Phoenix balanced by the seductive Vanessa Kirby. They carry off both the epic and the intimate with consummate ease.
For a figure who bestrode Europe like a colossus in his day, Napoleon has figured in comparatively few movies. There’s been supporting roles and cameos — in Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) for instance — but the last time he was at the centre of the action was back in 1970 in Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo. As played by Rod Steiger, he was very much the older Emperor, giving the dice a last and desperate roll and realizing that luck is no longer his friend.
While Phoenix and Kirby are both on powerful form, it’s in the battle scenes that the film’s real strength lies and where Scott clearly feels most at home. Most spectacular of all is one of Napoleon’s most remarkable successes, the one at Austerlitz. The director's current DP of choice, Dariusz Wolski (House Of Gucci, The Last Duel) excels himself, treating us to the view of the action through Bonaparte's telescope, to eye-popping graphic action below the ice as the battle hurtles towards its conclusion. As with the film’s other battles, it's designed for the biggest screen possible and thrives there, but it’s well ahead of the others both in terms of imagination and creativity, as well as demonstrating Napoleon’s unique military talents.
It's not a film without faults. The ending feels awkwardly rushed, the dialogue has its clunky moments and the humour sometimes feels out of place, but the overall effect is exciting, visually thrilling and fascinating. It does what a true epic should do – sweep you along with its spectacle, engages you with its emotion and refuses to let go of you until the last shot. The genre is not just alive, it’s kicking. And that’s down to Ridley Scott.
Napoleon is released in cinemas on 22 November.