On Cinema

Napoleon sold short

On Ridley Scott’s Napoleon and the challenge of biopics

Biopics are a tricky beast. Anyone who’s lived a life worth putting on a cinema screen will have done a hell of a lot more than you can squeeze into two hours. You can try to offer a bunch of tiny slices from childhood to adult triumph or defeat, or you can take the approach Aaron Sorkin did writing Steve Jobs, showing a small number of pivotal moments in an effort to explain the man.

In making Napoleon, Ridley Scott has gone for a bit of both. The film covers six battles in Bonaparte’s life, from an early victory at Toulon until his final defeat at Waterloo. But the narrative focus is on the general’s relationship with his wife, Josephine.

Joaquim Phoenix (below) plays the Frenchman as infatuated. Vanessa Kirby, as the future empress, doesn’t return the feeling. His letters to her are full of passion. Hers are more along the lines of reminders to pick up some milk on the way back from Austerlitz. In the film’s several sex scenes, Josephine gives the impression she’d rather be emptying the chamberpots than trying to conceive an heir.

Only at the ceremony where the marriage is annulled — efforts at conception having failed — does she show much indication that she had any attachment to her husband.

As for Bonaparte himself, Phoenix gives us a socially awkward emperor who seems to be 45 in both 1793 and 1815. We get a sense of his genius as a commander in some of the early battles, but the will to power that saw him seize power and then conquer most of Europe is never explained.

Perhaps those scenes were cut: the version in cinemas is two and a half hours long, but Scott has promised a four-hour release on Apple TV next year.

My feeling is that fictionalisation is fine if it’s in the service of the truth

The selling point of the film is the battles. These are full of spectacle, and will probably deliver what most viewers want, drowning out the noise of the historians grinding their teeth at the liberties taken with the record.

Those of us with fond memories of 1970’s Waterloo can think wistfully of the days when the Soviet Union would provide 15,000 soldiers as battlefield extras, but Scott has digital technology on his side. The march on and retreat from Moscow are especially well done.

As for the inaccuracies, they are certainly plentiful but you will have to decide yourself whether you can bear them. My feeling is that fictionalisation is fine if it’s in the service of the truth. To go back to Steve Jobs, I don’t believe for a second that each Apple product launch saw its boss confronted by every significant figure from his life. But it’s a way to show us the difficult relationships Jobs really did have.

On the other hand when Scott has Napoleon personally lead a final cavalry charge at Waterloo, this is intended to show us his bravery and refusal to quit. The Duke of Wellington, watching, is full of admiration. But in reality Napoleon’s success came not from physical courage but a grasp of strategy and tactics, and his willingness to send men to their deaths.

And these moments make it harder to suspend our disbelief. Any film covering three tumultuous decades of European war and politics is going to have an exposition problem. Early on, Bonaparte’s letters home begin with Wikipediaesque explanations of recent events, in case Josephine hasn’t been keeping up.

By the end, when he announces he will march to Belgium and meet Wellington “at Waterloo”, it feels as though one of his aides has just Googled the next thing to happen in 1815.

Still, at least we can hear what Phoenix is saying. Saltburn, the tale of a Liverpudlian undergraduate at Oxford befriended by an aristocrat, begins as Brideshead Revisited, detours into Monty Python and attempts to end as The Talented Mr Ripley.

It doesn’t land any of them, though the humorous section is probably the most successful, as Richard E. Grant and Rosamund Pike can both deliver a joke. But it suffers from an affliction of modern cinema: several lines crucial to the plot are simply inaudible. Actors used to be told to project. Now we must turn the subtitles on.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a prequel to the Hunger Games movies, based on the young adult novels by Suzanne Collins. It too is a biopic, in a way, explaining the early days of the wicked President Snow of the original films.
Both the young stars do fine jobs. As Snow, Tom Blyth even pulls off the trick of looking like he might, in 64 years, become Donald Sutherland. But leaving it I found myself reminded of dining in the sort of London restaurant where everyone is on expenses. It was impossible to fault anything I’d been served, but it was instantly forgettable.

In the same way, Ballad delivers an interesting enough story, and some beautifully shot action. If you were on a long flight, it would pass the time. But it joins the ever-growing list of films and TV series that ask us to care about peripheral events in fictional universes.

My complaint here isn’t simply that the returns on all this have now diminished to near vanishing point. It’s also one of fairness. How come we get spin-offs of spin-offs of Star Wars, but I can’t have a single sequel to my favourite Napoleonic movie, Master and Commander?

Robert Hutton’s war movies podcast, A Pod Too Far, returns for a second season this month

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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