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Napoleon, the not-so-great

Napoleon, the not-so-great

Brilliantly shot, the film manages to grab your attention despite its many shortcomings.

Film: Napoleon

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Rupert Everett, Edouard Philipponnat, Catherine Walker, Ludivine Sagnier

Johnson Thomas

Ridley Scott’s biopic ‘Napoleon’ is no ‘Gladiator’. It’s so tempered with human frailty that we don’t get a larger-than-life depiction of the man. The storyline is epic no doubt, but the treatment is well short of it. The nearly three-hour sweeping saga of romantic distractions, amidst an ambitious climb into the annals of history, is brilliantly embellished by battle set pieces that take your breath away.

The linear chronology here is riddled with inexplicable time-jumps and some historical inaccuracies — all to the betterment of the romance that appears to have taken primacy in this narration. But this love story, with all due respect, shouldn’t have overpowered the movie’s main arc — Napoleon’s personal rise and fall. The way Scott tells it here though, we see two basically unrelated storylines intermingling so much as to have sway over the tactical and commandering decisions of a military great.

It’s all very well to highlight the relationship between Napoleon and Josephine and the two esteemed actors do well to capture their mutual toxicity and the many intricacies in their dysfunctional relationship. But this very aspect of the writing causes an imbalance in the narration, so much so that the very essence of the military leader is lost in the melee of trivial pursuit.

Brilliantly shot, with battle scenes dramatised to compelling effect, the film manages to grab your attention and hold sway to it despite the many shortcomings. The bloody battle scenes evoke enough tension and the costumes and sets manage to bring history to life with great verve.

When you think of Napoleon, you automatically think of the military genius, the egomaniacal conqueror who glorified and unified France after the French Revolution. But the film takes you away from that and puts you square within the romance and toxicity of the couple.

We get a glimpse of a tortured mind and it feels twisted and less than that of a genius.

A major part of the narrative is concerned with the courtship and only some part of it is devoted to the battles. Scott’s attempt to humanise Napoleon and show us how he dealt with his wife and their insecurities doesn’t prove interesting enough.

Napoleon’s rise to the top, over 30 years, until his death in exile on the rocky island of St Helena in 1821, remains incidental and the broad humour accompanying it belittles the depiction.

With ‘Napoleon’, Scott proves his credentials as a technically great director. Character depiction appears to be his weakness though. The technical specs are impeccable, as expected from Scott and his team. The production design, costumes and the locations are convincingly real. The battle sequences, especially the ones fought amid the doleful squall of Austerlitz and in rain-drenched Waterloo, bring to vibrant life the pictures from history books. Unfortunately, this narrative fails to have a concerted focus and the climax feels rather like an anti-climax.

‘Napoleon’ is visually entreating but aurally, there’s a lot to be desired. Napoleon Bonaparte’s megalomania doesn’t come through clearly in the scripting here.

Scott’s film is a grandiose biopic with a hefty dose of melodrama. The carnage behind the fabled names is depicted with wanton ferocity.

This big-budget war epic works in a series of accomplished and impressive battle sequences within the confines of shallow screenplay that does little justice to the titular character. Scott’s craftsmanship may not be in question, but his judgment here is questionable.

There doesn’t appear to be much passion in what Napoleon (the Great) does as far as the battle sequences are concerned.

A gifted actor like Joachin Phoenix has unfortunately been reduced to playing a love-gilded man in uniform who may have inadvertently stumbled towards greatness.