A crowd of us went to see the new Napoleon film by Ridley Scott yesterday and I think we all enjoyed it. There were a few complaints about the lack of correct historical detail – for example apparently he didn’t blow up the top of the Pyramids with a cannonball- to which I gather Ridley Scott tells the historians to “get a life.” He’s clearly not fussed with the details, because of course a film of this magnitude is always going to get criticism – but if you were worried about that before you decided to embark on a historical epic film, then you wouldn’t bother to even start the massive project in the first place. He asks us to suspend our reality the moment Napoleon opens his mouth – because he has an American accent! I was clueless of the history in the first place, so it made little difference to my enjoyment of the film.
So I’m not going to do a Napoleon review per se because lots of actual reviewers have already done it way better than I can. But I’m particularly fascinated that Ridley Scott appears to be far more interested in the essence of the man and his relationship with the love of his life, Josephine than with providing the correct detail around what actually happened. Napoleon is magnificently portrayed by Joachim Phoenix, who offers an unusual insight into a complex personality. Vanessa Kirby was equally brilliant as Josephine. Ridley Scott succeeds in inviting us to get under the skin of Napoleon’s marriage and to witness all his little quirks and foibles. To perhaps understand the man a little more. He makes strange noises when he wants to have sex immediately – often when various members of staff are required to look the other way. He needs her in a way he can’t quite deal with and it quite often felt disconcerting to watch. We were given an intimate, slightly unnerving insight into their bizarre private relationship and at times he seemed so vulnerable, with Josephine quite clearly wearing the trousers most of time (that’s not literally obviously – as mainly she was wearing vast dresses that he could hoick up to give her a fast and furious quickie from behind, whilst she looked on unmoved). My heart couldn’t help but ache for him at times. His body language, the way he wore and held his hat (dropping it on occasion or putting it atop Josephine’s head). He did a lot of crying into his handkerchief. As did Josephine. We watched both of them at different times crying in realistic, snotty, slightly unattractive, but heartfelt ways. It felt grown up somehow.
It’s always unnerving to see a grown man cry and for me it was hard to watch. I assume that’s all tied up with my childhood and my parents “stiff upper lip” approach to life. Why wouldn’t he shed tears along the way? But did we ever see Spartacus cry? Or any of the other swaggering warriors who fought the great wars? I guess it’s something that’s becoming more acceptable over time and that can only be a good thing – especially for our children to witness. Napoleon was presented as an emotional man who was missing his mother and close to his brother and it was frankly endearing. Perhaps it will prompt discussions about whether both men and women are ready to deal with this new “outpouring” of emotions. Perhaps a cultural tide on the turn? Of course, the idea that men are less emotional than women is a myth. All babies cry – male ones sometimes more, but from the age of 11 boys are encouraged to be strong, dependable and show no weakness. Some of this is biological – testosterone makes you cry less apparently….but not all of it can be explained that way. We all ride the same emotional rollercoaster, but with different outcomes. As a culture still in transition, films like this will hopefully allow more male emotional expressiveness and possibly even help alleviate the woeful statistics of male suicides in Britain.
Despite it being a historical epic film, it was the story of their love affair was the essence of the film. From the moment Napoleon laid eyes on Josephine and couldn’t stop staring at her, to the moment of her death, she remained his one true love. Even in the middle of the film when they both read out their divorce declarations because she couldn’t provide him with an heir, they were emotional and unbelieving of the situation. That scene was very moving – with Josephine flitting from misery and disbelief to almost fits of laughter. Kirby played her excellently here – her low, strong voice added to the mothering element he so required. Whilst he went on to sire a child and heir with a much younger wife, he continued to look to Josephine for support and love. When they met she was already a widow with two children and he was six years younger than her. That age gap was apparent in some of the intimate scenes where Napoleon came across as needy, endearing and possibly slightly unhinged.
The battle scenes were of course predictably brash and bold – the ice battle in particular was horrific to watch. He clearly had an insatiable lust for military expansionism and a seemingly chilly indifference to the loss of millions of lives – even in his own troops and looked to blame everyone else.But even in his first triumph against the British, Napoleon was portrayed as pretty scared and slightly surprised he’d been successful. Lots of heavy breathing or aggravated yelping, with a neurotic energy. The blocking of his ears every time the thunder of cannon fire is emitted was also not something you often appreciate in a glorious leader. As he rose quickly through the ranks, becoming increasingly all powerful, Josephine was by his side and seemed to take it all in her stride. Although apparently he had 22 mistresses – we were only invited to focus on Josephine’s indiscretions and how they affected him.
It was interesting to see the locations where they shot much of the film. The Courtauld Gallery in London was where they shot the grisly execution of Marie Antoinette and Petworth House was where they filmed Josephine living out her days as a divorcee. I’d been there in the morning before seeing the film in the afternoon and recommend a visit – extraordinary to imagine all that filming going on in those fabulous grounds just last year:-
This was where Napolean arrived to present his infant son to Josephine and she was standing staring forlornly out at the lake as she whispered to the baby “one day you will understand just how much I have given up for you.” Given the love story element, it’s tragic to imagine him out in exile, his baby son in Austria and Josephine alone (with occasional suitors visiting her)….their love story did not have a happy ending, but I’m not giving any spoilers away as I’m sure most of you know the story. I’d highly recommend seeing the film though, it was excellent.