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Napoleon without complexes | Christianity today

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After the violent agony of the revolution, in a bankrupt French Republic on the brink of collapse, one man captured the hearts of his people and rose to power. This is the story of Napoleon Bonaparte, the subject of director Ridley Scott’s new film, Napoleonin theaters for Thanksgiving.

Napoleon was one of the most fascinating characters in history. Unfortunately, for all its big-budget scenes and stars, Scott’s film is underdeveloped and confusing, in its basic historical narrative but, more importantly, in what it has to say about the theme and meaning of its life.


Napoleon It begins with the bloody fall of the French monarchy and, with it, the fall of its famous queen Marie Antoinette. From there, we meet Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix), a low-born but ambitious officer who seizes his chance to rise to power in the chaotic aftermath of the revolution. The film follows point by point the main events of his life, from his first military success in Toulon to his final exile on the island of Saint Helena.

Scott goes through these phases in confusing succession. From Toulon, which is in France, Napoleon suddenly finds himself in Egypt. If you are a student of 18th and 19th century Europe and its constant power struggles, you know that Napoleon campaigned in Egypt to weaken Britain, France’s rival, by cutting off her possessions in the Middle East. But if you don’t already know this context, just look at Napoleon with the Great Sphinx at Giza and you’ll probably wonder what he’s doing there and why.

Also strangely handled is Napoleon’s conflicted love story with Josephine, the woman he named empress of the French and then abandoned. Her story is the stuff of legend, one of the great enigmas of history: they remained deeply connected after her divorce, and her death devastated him. Your name was supposedly among the last words he spoke in life.

But NapoleonThe script tells, rather than shows, much of this world-historical romance. As Josephine, Vanessa Kirby (previously Princess Margaret in The crown) is radiant as always, but some of the dialogue between her character and Napoleon was so awkward that it caused laughter from the audience during my screening, and not the good kind.

Phoenix plays Napoleon as a strong, cold and silent man, sometimes a brute. He is an excellent actor in the right role, but this performance does not bring us any closer to understanding the phenomenon that was Napoleon. Because? Did his people love him so much? Why, really, did Josephine do it? NapoleonNapoleon has no appeal, leaving the film without a theory of his rise to power that viewers can consider applying to powerful figures of our time.

That central lack is a shame because Napoleon It has some strong elements. If what you like in a historical epic is a glorious burden of Calvary (banners fluttering, helmets thundering, sabers gleaming in the sun), this film is for you. Scott pays close attention to each war scene, from the placement of artillery to the bitter cold of the Russian invasion. Battle nerds will be delighted. More military-focused excerpts from the film might be helpful to high school students of European history.

It is not clear what went wrong Napoleon. A good director, a very capable cast and an epic production scale come together to make something less than the sum of its parts. Maybe the recent strikes in Hollywood hampered post-production editing, or maybe the participants just didn’t come together.

Whatever the reason, the film has moments that could have been profound. Napoleon’s encounter with the monuments of long-dead ancient pharaohs could have been a meditation on the fleeting lives of even the most successful of ambitious men. Instead, the moment passes without that depth.

The film also omits any mention of faith. Without prior knowledge, a viewer could almost finish the film not knowing that there were priests and churches in the land of Notre Dame. The French Revolution shook the Church as much as it shook the monarchy, but according to this account, the Church seems to have never existed. Scott shows Napoleon’s great rebellion by placing the crown on his own head rather than submitting to the crown being placed by the church, but the film doesn’t show why that mattered.

Napoleon could speak to us today. He emerged in a time of populism, unrest, revolution. He captured the imagination of a country, feeding and feeding on his own narrative of greatness. In the end, he failed his people and blamed them for that failure.

Fill in some context clues from Wikipedia and Napoleon can provide a useful history lesson. But it could have been epic in more than its battles; It could have been an epic story of a man who almost won the entire world.

Warning viewer

Napoleon It has several sex scenes, although they are brief. There are some gory moments, as you would expect in a film about pre-modern European wars. The violence is generally quiet, but adds up to enough for an R rating.

Rebecca Cusey is an attorney and film critic in Washington, DC.



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