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  • Writer's picturePaul Jameson

Napoleon : A Review of Sorts

I was really looking forward to this film, but then at its release a lot of historical purists were quite vehement in their disappointment. As a result I decided not to go to the cinema, but wait until the film was available through Firestick, and more affordable to me. I also decided to approach it as a Hollywood-style retelling - full of artistic license, fictional niceties, and one eye closed to historical facts - rather than getting annoyed at historical minutiae. After all a Napoleonic film, full of action, with Joaquim Phoenix in the lead, Ridley Scott as the director...

What could possibly go wrong?

Waterloo, I suppose.

I speak in jest, of course, for this film fell over long before Waterloo.

Whoever wrote the dialogue, endorsed script, approved historical components, clearly knew little of Napoleon. A man who became the scourge of Europe, was noted for his inspiring presence, oratory skills, and military genius; who inspired fierce loyalty in his men, his generals, fear in his enemies, came across as a bumptious fool in Phoenix's portrayal. It was quite painful. A man of few words - none at times - who could barely be understood, and who was dictated to by his mother, clinging to her apron strings in the world of political intrigue post-Robespierre and the Reign of Terror.

I was left quite bemused.

Not in a good way.

Perhaps this was because the film tried to focus on his relationship with Juliette. Only it didn't. Here, bad sex was the only real driver - and that wasn't much of one. A sordid relationship between a failed lover, in the miniscule man, and an older 'vixen' who was ever unfaithful and unable to bear an heir. Wishy-washy coverage at best, and even here the historical accuracy was sorely lacking; the newborn heir (of another woman) being presented by Napoleon to Juliette made me cringe...

Terribly so.

Did they know nothing of their relationship?

Okay. So perhaps the battle scenes and action would make up for it. Certainly the locations and effects on the battlefield were good, as was costume, but even here it fell down completely when it came to historical accuracy and a limp portrayal of those around him. His generals - we didn't even know their names - were non-descript, unused in the film, and of little perceived value to Napoleon. Coming up to the battle on which it all hinged, the portrayal of Wellington was up there with a Benny Hill rendition of Old Hook Nose, and even those with the most basic knowledge of Waterloo know Napoleon didn't lead a charge at the British lines. All quite awful. And this was me going into it with an open mind, who was willing to let artistic portrayal take over fact. There was little of either. Weak, poor and lazy, are the best descriptors I can use.

Will I watch it again?


Just because I love this genre, I'm sure I'll have it on in the background whilst writing at some point. But in terms of a good film, this really isn't one. It doesn't even come close to comparing with the film Waterloo (1970), in which the script, historical accuracy, dialogue, characterisation, and battle scenes were all on point. Fifty-four years later and with all the effects, post-production, and advances in technology, Napoleon felt thin, lazy, rushed, and uncared for.

What went wrong?

I suppose only Ridley Scott can answer that...


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