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Review by Rich Cline | MUST SEE
dir Ridley Scott
scr David Scarpa
prd Ridley Scott, Mark Huffam, Kevin J Walsh
with Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Rupert Everett, Ludivine Sagnier, Matthew Needham, Ian McNeice, Edouard Philipponnat, Ben Miles, Mark Bonnar, Paul Rhys, Catherine Walker
release US/UK 24.Nov.23
23/UK Apple 2h38
Is it streaming?
Only an Imax-sized screen can do justice to the massive scale of this epic biopic. Ridley Scott directs the film with an eye for grandeur, allowing the audience to explore vast settings while expertly staged action unfolds. And writer David Scarpa has some fun digging into the characters, creating people who are fascinating, funny and also a bit scary. It's a thunderous film that's far more entertaining than expected.
Following the French Revolution, military strategist Napoleon (Phoenix) gains power through a series of battles across war-torn Europe, becoming France's ruler in 1799 and proclaiming himself emperor. He marries the widow Josephine (Kirby), leading to a passionate, stormy relationship. Meanwhile, he continues a feud with Britain and negotiates precariously with Austria and Russia. Amid various battle triumphs, he is humbled by a disastrous march on Moscow as winter sets in, then after a period in exile he returns to reclaim his title. Defeat by Britain and Prussia at Waterloo sees him exiled one last time.
Constant wars characterise this period in history, and the film deftly interweaves these grand-scale sequences with Napoleon's personal life, most notably his prickly but intense relationship Josephine, a strong-willed woman with whom he happily matches wits. Their letters provide voiceover narration, adding deeper levels of emotion even in the often outrageously grisly battlefield sequences. And all of this is filmed with impeccable attention to detail and seamless effects that create what looks like a cast of hundreds of thousands.
Because of the film's layered approach, Phoenix finds a range of wonderful textures that offer dark insight beneath Napoleon's public image, balancing his intense ambition with his earthy emotionality. His scenes with Kirby's steely Josephine are superbly played to mix lustiness with control, vividly conveying what held them together through various affairs and even after they officially split so he can produce an heir elsewhere. And the final act is livened up when the scene-stealing Everett turns up as the Duke of Wellington.
This feels like a movie they simply don't make anymore, playing out as both a jaw-dropping spectacle and deeper character drama. It's expertly shot by Dariusz Wolski, edited by Sam Restivo and scored by Martin Phipps; Scott clearly knows how to assemble a first-rate cast and crew, and this is also one of his most emotionally complex films, making some important observations about the nature of war, ambition and loyalty.
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© 2023 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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