‘Napoleon’: Ridley Scott’s epic biopic is a entralling, entertaining triumph of big-screen, old-school cinema

Yes tonight, Josephine: Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby in ‘Napoleon’.

NAPOLEON **** (158 minutes) MA
The unparalled ability of Ridley Scott to put on a sprawling cinematic show hits a new peak with Napoleon, a full-blooded, thoroughly engaging bio-epic that toggles seamlessly between battle sequences of eye-popping scale and visual power and the intimacy of Napoleon’s rocky, obsessive, life-defining relationship with his lover-tormentor Josephine.

Sumptuous to a fault with painterly lighting that has long been his signature, Scott chronicles Napoleon’s rapid, post-revolutionary rise from gunnery officer to world conquering leader of France, his lust for battle, strategic thinking and political ascendancy matched only by his hatred for England and his love for the promiscuous Josephine who, in Napoleon’s own words, was something of a slut when left on her own.

In one of his best performances to date, Joaquin Phoenix presents the topside of Napoleon as a master of the battlefield, a quality rendered in a clutch of memorable, often graphic action sequences.

Deploying his deep love of deep-perspective wide shots, Scott relishes in the grandeur of war as ironically beautiful spectacles of carnage, often cutting from stunning overhead shots of vast armies traversing the landscape to the intimacy of close quarters fighting. Decapitation by musket and cannon fire is featured with remarkable frequency.

Ranking as one of the most stunning battle recreations in modern film history is Scott’s staging of the famous Battle of Austerlitz, where Napoleon’s strategic genius saw him lure his Russian and Austrian foes onto the surface of a frozen lake, which he promptly shattered with precise artillery barrages.

The film’s universally splendid cinematography by Dariusz Wolski – the eighth collaboration with Scott, including The Martian – renders the clash as an oddly graceful ballet. Cannonballs crash into the ice, streaking into the water as men fall in, scrambling vainly to find purchase on the shards before slipping to their deaths.

Running parallel to all the sweeping conquests and realpolitik is Napoleon’s slavish, masochistic bond with his beloved Josephine (Vanessa Kirby from The Crown, M:I7), whose scandalous sexual conduct with other men hit the front pages and made a fool of him, yet failed to douse his devotion to her.

Often fiery, sometimes tender, these personal scenes, anchored by Kirby’s counterweight performance, give the film a crucial emotional bedrock, grounding Napoleon’s victories in battle and with the French populace with his desperation to have children, the one desire Josephine could not oblige. Phoenix’s illumination of Napoleon’s underside is what truly sells his performance.

As a sweeping historical epic, Napoleon is deeply satisfyingly, often enthralling entertainment that holds up minute-by-minute across its bladder-testing two-and-a-half-hour running time.

More broadly, it joins Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon as a sound cinematic backhander from old-school directors against the onslaught of utterly forgettable, eminently meaningless $200 million superhero epics, which appear to have fallen out of favour this year with poor attendances and bad storytelling.

Predictably, Wearily, the film’s historical accuracy has been criticized alongside complaints the narrative skips a lot of important stuff, such as Napoleon’s support for slavery.

Once again we find ourselves having to remind such people that Napoleon is a movie, not a documentary. That’s the format of choice for covering his life in forensic detail, not for producing a piece of mass-market entertainment.

Any biopic about such a towering historical figure As Napoleon is going to exercise its right to dramatic license, including the casting of an actor who is neither as short nor as round as his portraits suggest. By that measure, the casting of Danny DeVito as Napoleon in Get Shorty gets a higher accuracy score. Ridiculous.

Though it’s unlikely, the hope is that we shall all live long enough to see the day when pundits and commentators awaken to the ancient reality that movie goers know that when they go to see a film such as Napoleon they’re witnessing a work of art, not a work of academia.