By: Russ Matthews
Films like Napoleon may cause many to return to their high school Western History course and attempt to remember everything their teacher taught.
Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) is as legendary as he is controversial in French and World history. He rose in the military ranks and eventually became Emperor before being exiled twice from his homeland. Also, his infatuation with Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby), the woman who would eventually become his wife and Empress of France, may have evolved as mythical as the man himself.
Ridley Scott (Gladiator) continues his storied directorial career by taking on the biographical tale of one of Europe’s most influential military and political leaders. This journey travels from the early stages of Napoleon’s career and his planning of the Siege of Toulon. As his fame increased within the post-revolutionary ranks of the French people, his reputation for ruthless and effective campaigns on the battlefield continued. Despite the public accolades and success, the man’s heart was taken and imprisoned in his love for his wife, Joséphine. Yet, their relationship was strained since she could not bear him an heir. Between the tensions at home, on the battlefield, and amongst the political leadership of France, this story attempts to show the constant battle fought by the man who would become Emperor of France.
Even as an octogenarian, Scott has not lost his touch with stylised and epic-like violence of war. His eye for the grand, sweeping depiction of land battles continues to make his films worth seeing in the cinemas. When the film finds itself on the battlefield, this is where it has the most promise and will draw the audience into the world of Napoleon Bonaparte. Unfortunately, the script of David Scarpa (All the Money in the World) anchors itself in the relationship between the world leader and Joséphine. While the sparks fly and the action unfolds in fantastic detail on the military front line, these fireworks fail to be set alight on the homefront.
There is no denying that Joaquin Phoenix and Venessa Kirby are some of the most talented actors of their generation. Yet, nothing they do manages to develop convincing chemistry between them. This becomes problematic as the war-time scenes end, and Napoleon must come home; these scenes let the film down and have the viewer yearning to return to the battlefields again. Scott has a reputation for choosing style over substance with his projects. This film taps into his illustrious eye for spectacle while leaving his audience begging for scraps regarding the depth of the story.
Napoleon proves to be a fascinating test of our historical memories, and to be appreciated must be seen on the big screen. Still, this legendary figure’s life story proves less compelling once he is taken from the battleground to his home life. The military figure is left to be seen as an ambitious and brilliant military strategist but less impressive in his treatment of his family and the people of France.
Reel Dialogue: When does ambition fail you?
As Napoleon’s story unfolds on screen, many may wonder how far ambition and pride can take you in life? Napoleon Bonaparte was known for his hubris and how it drove him to the heights and depths of his life. His story proves that no one seems immune from the reality of the legendary proverb, regardless of whether you become Emperor of a nation or merely the king of your own domain.
Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall. – Proverbs 16:18 (NLT)
Many may not know that this is a Biblical concept and that it is at the root of the original sin of mankind. Every person, barring one, in history has or will succumb to this nasty human trait that remains at the heart of all of humanity’s failings. This metaphor for the human condition proves that pride is the problem in the story and that the escape from this vicious counterpart can only be found outside of ourselves.
Even though the disastrous nature of pride is introduced in the Bible, this book also provides the means of escaping its influence. Humility is the antithesis of the vicious cycle of pride, exemplified by the person of Jesus.
Do nothing from selfish ambition [rivalry] or conceit – Philippians 2:3 (ESV)
Article supplied with thanks to City Bible Forum.
All images: Movie stills
About the author: Russ Matthews is a film critic at City Bible Forum and Reel Dialogue. He has a passion for film and sparking spiritual conversations.