War is hell, of course, in Ridley Scott’s biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte. But for viewers of this film, safe in their cinema seats, it is also inescapably magnificent.
Scott’s film is the latest of dozens focused on this towering personality: some great (Abel Gance’s innovative, passionate and patriotic silent film of 1927); some worthy (Sergei Bondarchuk’s colossal productions War and Peace and Waterloo), some … less so (King Vidor’s War and Peace, starring Herbert Lom).
This venture – which really should be seen on the biggest screen you can get to – comes out close to the top of the list, thanks to its thunderous battlefield scenes, painterly depictions of key moments in Napoleon’s rise to power and an engrossingly complex central performance from Joaquin Phoenix.
Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa chart Napoleon’s career from the chaotic years of the French Revolution (we open with the beheading of Marie Antoinette) and the jumpstart to prominence he gave himself masterminding a surprise attack on the British garrison and fleet at Toulon.
Phoenix is twice the age Napoleon was at Toulon (he was just 24) but he’s never less than persuasive...