There are frankly not enough historical movies like this one in the theaters these days, and we are the losers for that. Napoleon Bonaparte who began life in Corsica and ended in exile twice over on islands (Elba then St. Helena) was a complex human being. He loved France, he loved Josephine and he loved the army and the art of war, which he was very good at. Of some 86 battles he won 70 some of them. Ridley Scott is known for filming huge war epics (think Gladiator as well as this one) and he does an excellent job of portraying huge battle scenes, like for instance at Austerlitz, but he also does a fine job and showing the ongoing sexual tension between Napoleon and Josephine. This relationship is the heart and centerpiece of the film and I expect both Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby will be nominated for various acting awards come Oscar time.
The film begins as the French Revolution is cranking up during the 1780s, and we learn of the fate of Mr. Robespierre– the off with their heads master of the guillotine when it came to royalty, who had it coming to him after chopping off the head Marie Antoinette. It was a chaotic time, and Napoleon emerging as a real leader of men in the army who could take charge of difficult situations and win even improbable victories. And his men loved him and were prepared to die for him. you may know the story of Beethoven initially dedicating his third symphony to Napoleon and calling it the Eroica, only to learn that while Napoleon had said he was a man of the people, and believed in liberty and equality, he went on to crown himself emperor! Beethoven was disgusted and scratched out the dedication on his score.
In many ways the story of Napoleon and Josephine was a tragic love story, because she was not able to bear him an heir, or any child actually, and so he was forced to divorce her and marry someone nubile. But as it turned out, there would be no heir to throne, because Napoleon would end life in exile.
Without question, Napoleon was a man with a considerable ego, particularly when it came to all things military, and this was to be his undoing when he lost over 400,000 men in an attempt to conquer Russia during winter, and met his Waterloo, at Waterloo. Pride indeed, goeth before the fall. Yet somehow he avoided execution, and died peacefully on St. Helena in 1821, with his last recorded words being ‘France, the Army, the head of the Army, and Josephine’. This movie is too long, but then there is much to tell about the adult life of Napoleon Bonaparte and I’m glad we have this good film to remind us of his life journey, a journey of reach, and over-reach, of achievement and failure, of love, and love lost. It is not Romeo and Juliet, but it is a love story equally tragic in character.