After a year long hype and countless analysis of trailers, I have now seen the film at the first showing at my local cinema.
I expected to love the cinema experience even if I was irritated by the historical inaccuracies. However, I felt underwhelmed by the experience and even more irritated by the inaccuracies. In fairness, I thought Joaquin Phoenix did a good job of playing Napoleon, given that playing a character over twenty years is challenging. I also believe Vanessa Kirby gave a good performance. However, given the age gap and the importance of Josephine's experience to the young Napoleon, an older actress might have been a better choice.
Like many folks, when this project was announced, I assumed that this would either be Napoleon's early years or a multi-part film. When you try and fit so much into one movie, even one that lasts two and a half hours, it is inevitable that critical events are glossed over and risks the charge of superficiality. Telling the military history through just four campaigns misses a lot.
As far as historical accuracy is concerned, it falls down in many ways. I could have lived with that if Ridley Scott said this was artistic licence for dramatic effect. But he didn't. He went on the attack, claiming because we weren't there, we don't know. I may need 'to get a life' in his words, but as someone who has undertaken a lot of historical research, primary and secondary, for my books, this response is just silly. Of course, there is room for debate over the interpretation of the evidence, but we know quite a lot. And it is certainly not to be found in the first two books. Some argue that because Ridley Scott comes from an advertising background, this is his way of creating controversy to sell the film. I'm sure that's a factor, but I remain unconvinced it is the whole story. Mind you, I did enjoy his retort to the British ambassador: “You think you’re so great because you have boats!”
Given the time constraints, I can understand picking a scene from a battle to convey the action. However, why not choose something that did happen rather than invent something? If you want to portray Napoleon's ruthlessness in Egypt, the siege of Acre would have been a better example than inventing him shooting at the pyramids. I am more sympathetic to the ice lake scene at Austerlitz, which has a germ of truth in it because it is a difficult battle to encapsulate in a few scenes. I am baffled by his depiction of Waterloo. He captured the rain and the cuirassiers charging the squares well, but where was Hougoumont or La Haye Sainte? And what on earth were the trenches about? Not to mention Napoleon charging into the combat!
I am relatively neutral about Napoleon, and I don't think this film feeds either of the entrenched camps. I believe historical myths matter, as we can do without them in a dangerous world. However, I didn't get upset about his portrayal as a leader.
Overall, I left the cinema feeling that this was an opportunity missed. The hype may have raised my expectations too much, but it just wasn't the spectacle I was expecting.
|My 28mm Napoleon in Egypt.