The man who would be emperor

Published 12:24 pm Tuesday, January 2, 2024

This week at Tryon Theatre, “Napoleon” conquers the silver screen, dominating yet another frontier. This film is the newest historical epic from acclaimed director Ridley Scott, whose talent for imaginative and action-packed interpretations of history is unrivaled. Scott, most famous for “Gladiator” (2000), brings a similar sensibility to the story of Napoleon, hanging a fictionalized tapestry of conversations and characterizations on the frame of a very real existence in history. For anyone looking to find a history lesson, with great fidelity paid to both events and characters, you would be better suited with history books. This is not a film that is set out to educate, but rather to compel emotion and feeling, to create a spectacle of a larger-than-life man. In pursuit of that goal, “Napoleon” excels, with the ever-compelling Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the eponymous Napoleon Bonaparte at the heart of the film’s success. 

The scope of this film is not all-encompassing of Napoleon’s life, leaving his childhood and formative years to history, picking up this interpretation at the height of the French Revolution with Napoleon as a young officer in the army. The narrative is then chronologically structured according to key milestones of two threads of Napoleon’s life: his battlefield victories, and his passionate but troubled relationship with his wife Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). Each of these threads bears a responsibility in the film’s efficacy, with the battlefield scenes constituting the film’s action and thrill, and the relationship between the lovers informing the film’s heart.

As a career military man, Napoleon experienced three lifetimes worth of martial conflict, having fought and commanded in nearly 80 unique battles, and winning the overwhelming majority at that. In many ways, Napoleon’s military prowess is the most surviving element of his story; his military genius and heralded command of his men are still studied and praised today. With this wealth of conflict from which to draw, Scott is at his best as a director, breathing rich cinematic life and dynamism into the film’s numerous and impressive battle sequences. To address too much specificity of these battles would be to rob you of the pleasure in enjoying them. However, suffice it to say, if the film was only a montage of these battles, it would still be worth the price of admission for the technical wizardry of production and cinematography that brings these clashes of man and metal to life. 

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The praise of the film’s action is not to undersell the film’s more subtle moments of dialogue or performance but rather to highlight their superlative quality. The material world of the film’s sets and costumes are gorgeously detailed, anchoring the viewer in this historical era, despite the artistic liberties of story. 

We hope you all will join us for this richly imagined epic of history, in “Napoleon”!