Ridley Scott, that great man of cinema who had the luck (or misfortune?) of putting together three unforgettable masterpieces at the beginning of his attractive if uneven career — The Duellists, Alien and Blade Runner — spoke with lasting art of the Napoleonic era in the ancient, continuous, mysterious and obsessive duels between two officers of the Emperor of France. It happened in the beautiful The Duellists.
Napoleon did not appear in it, although his presence floated throughout the story. Infinite years later, Scott has managed to portray the transcendent and deadly biography of the Corsican gentleman who set out to conquer the world and largely succeeded. This individual also obsessed the all-powerful Stanley Kubrick, but after multiple attempts he never did produce his own portrait of the great man. And when it comes to a director like Ridley Scott and the protean personality of the man he is portraying, you walk into the movie theater in the hopes of seeing a great show. For this concept to be complete, one assumes that not only the eyes will feel admiration for what they see, but that what happens on the screen will also convey emotion and other gratifying sensations. For my part, I admired how some of the battle scenes were filmed, although this Napoleon, who appears in almost every shot, triggers both coldness and antipathy in me.
It is assumed that this individual of legendary fame was very complex and that his turbulent history aroused terror as well as fascination. It causes nothing but fatigue in my case. The character is twisted but never magnetic. As conceived by Ridley Scott and played by Joaquin Phoenix, an actor who I almost always find unbearable, I care neither about his triumphs nor his military failures, about his methodology for becoming the master of Europe or about the twilight of his ambitious dreams. His turbulent and eternal love life with the Empress Josephine did awaken a certain curiosity in me, but it was because of the interest I felt in her, not him. The former courtesan and adulteress who had seen it all and was incapable of conceiving the baby Napoleon that would have fulfilled the father’s supreme desire: to have an heir to prolong his empire. I found her interesting every time she had a scene. As I also enjoyed the seductive performance by Vanessa Kirby, the actress who brought bitterness and sensuality to the young Princess Margaret in the series The Crown. But spending two hours and 40 minutes in the company of the intense Phoenix exhausted me.
The script is not complacent with the character’s supposed historical greatness. The French are, unsurprisingly, upset with the vision that Scott offers of Napoleon. His war exploits are described, but an explanatory note at the end of the movie also tells us about the millions of deaths they caused. Napoleon was a military genius as well as an opportunist with an enormous capacity to accumulate power. The empire of the guillotine is well told, and how it not only ended beheading the kings and the aristocracy, but also of the revolutionaries themselves.
However, there are fundamental characters, such as the sinister Fouché, who survived everything and everyone while always holding on tow power, who are described with unforgivable speed. And the director’s visual power dazzles as he describes the definitive decline of Napoleon at Waterloo or the disastrous invasion of Russia. There are brilliant moments in the film, although in general I am assailed by coldness or indifference about what I am being told. I suppose that the character, his legend and his reality, will return to the cinema on more occasions, and I hope with greater fortune. To take revenge for my relative disappointment, I walked out and watched another historical film, the wonderful Spartacus. And as always, there are moments when tears well up in my eyes. It’s a great show, but it also moves me. Whereas I don’t really care whether Napoleon dies, defeated and alone, on the island of Saint Helena.
Director: Ridley Scott.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Ruper Everett, Paul Rhys.
Genre: biopic. United Kingdom, 2023.
Runtime: 158 minutes.
Release date: November 24.
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