"Napoleon", directed by Ridley Scott and starring Joaquin Phoenix as the titular French general, has already caused excitement weeks ahead of its release. The two trailers released so far have given a preview of the huge battle scenes and other historical events in the movie, but they also show Napoleon's more personal side, especially with his wife Joséphine, played by Vanessa Kirby.
Despite all this information, there are still many unanswered questions about what to expect from "Napoleon", as well as how Scott will compress a story that seems to stretch from the French Revolution to Napoleon's downfall more than a decade later.
"Napoleon" marks the first Scott/Phoenix collaboration since another historical epic - "Gladiator" - and the success of their first film puts pressure on "Napoleon" to succeed. Fortunately, the movie's marketing campaign indicates that there is a lot to look forward to.
Scott is an extremely talented director with a long list of successes under his belt, and Phoenix has established himself as one of the best actors in the business. Scott and Phoenix make the ideal team for "Napoleon". The French general who proclaimed himself emperor is a prime subject for a Hollywood biopic, but with so many fascinating chapters in his life, it's not clear what will be included.
The Battle of Austerlitz
One of the most impressive images in the trailers for "Napoleon" shows an ambush, as Napoleon's bombardment breaks the ice beneath his enemies' feet, causing them all to fall into the freezing waters below.
This scene represents the Battle of Austerlitz, often cited as a tactical masterstroke by Napoleon. The French victory caused the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, which had existed for 1,000 years, and redefined European political boundaries for generations to come. Napoleon's use of practical effects is a fitting way to capture the scale of the battle, as Scott claimed that some scenes involved hundreds of men and soldiers.
The French Revolution
Napoleon Bonaparte first came to prominence in the chaos that followed the French Revolution. He defended the ideals of republicanism and religious freedom, and was seen as a figure who could unite the disorganized revolutionaries. The first trailer for "Napoleon" shows a guillotine falling and a woman dressed in high-class attire - potentially Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France.
Napoleon's alliance with the values of the French Revolution contradicted his later decision to declare himself emperor of France in a non-democratic way. It's not clear how important the French Revolution will be in "Napoleon". There is more than enough history for a series of films on the subject.
Stunning visual design
Ridley Scott has already proved himself a master of working with the camera in an emotive way in films such as "Blade Runner" and "Alien", and the minute details of the design of "Napoleon" are likely to enhance this effect.
Scott is meticulous in his preparation and insists on a rigorous approach to historical accuracy. At an event in London, costume designer Janty Yates emphasized this commitment, saying: "There was embroidery commissioned for very specific generals from Russia, Prussia, Britain, France and others" (via Deadline).
The trailers and posters released so far show the grand scale of "Napoleon", but Scott has made sure that every inch of it has a purpose.
Napoleon in Egypt
The first trailer for "Napoleon" shows the general facing the Great Sphinx, mirroring a famous painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Napoleon's campaign in Egypt was part of an attempt to seize land from the Ottoman Empire and cut off British trade routes to India. When the campaign failed, Napoleon tried to speed up his retreat by poisoning his own men who were suffering from bubonic plague. It is not known exactly how many men were poisoned, but it could have been in the hundreds. This key detail highlights Napoleon's ruthlessness in his quest for power.
The Invasion of Russia
As well as showing Napoleon's brutal rise to power, the movie promises to portray his downfall. Entertainment Weekly revealed a preview of "Napoleon", which showed the failed invasion of Russia.
Napoleon believed that his capture of Moscow would mark his victory over the Russians, but the governor of Moscow, Feodor Rostopchin, ordered the city to be burned down rather than surrendered. Napoleon lost 10,000 men in his retreat during the harsh Russian winter, marking a rare miscalculation in his slow fall. The inclusion of Moscow also suggests the possibility that "Napoleon" shows the preceding Battle of Borodino, one of the bloodiest battles in world history at the time.
The trailers for "Napoleon" so far have shown brief moments of British military leaders. Among Napoleon's many enemies in Europe, none were as persistent or problematic as the British.
Napoleon shared a reluctant respect with the Duke of Wellington, who would eventually defeat him at the Battle of Waterloo, bringing the Napoleonic Wars to an end. The rivalry between the men would be an intriguing storyline for "Napoleon", although it is impossible for Scott to show all of Napoleon's 66 major battles.
Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo devastated his support in France, and he was forced to abdicate the throne shortly afterwards.
Exile on St. Helena
No story of Napoleon's downfall would be complete without his final exile to a remote island in the Atlantic Ocean. Napoleon had been exiled once before, but escaped to France with an army and briefly regained power. He spent the last five years of his life in solitude, thousands of kilometers away from his wife and children. "Napoleon" will have to strike a delicate balance between portraying Napoleon's personal life and his explosive military career. His final exile could provide a striking point of contrast to the fast-paced action of the battles, showing a more human side to a highly politicized figure.
Ridley Scott's Look at the Characters
As much as "Napoleon" promises to represent historical events as accurately as possible, the character of Napoleon will conform to Scott's version of events. At the time, everyone in Europe had their own agenda when describing Napoleon, and it wouldn't have been possible to consolidate all these conflicting points of view into one cohesive narrative.
Phoenix said in an interview with Empire: "If you watch this movie, it's that experience told through Ridley's eyes. It's such a complex world." In the same interview, Scott compared Napoleon to Hitler, Stalin and Alexander the Great, so it will be fascinating to see how he captures such a destructive figure.
Vanessa Kirby as Joséphine de Beauharnais
The great love of Napoleon's life, Joséphine, was an equally complex character. She was a trusted political advisor to her husband, and they endured a passionate marriage despite their infidelities.
Vanessa Kirby's importance in the trailers shows that Joséphine could be as central as Napoleon to the plot of the film. Joséphine is often portrayed as a self-centered opportunist, taking advantage of Napoleon's ambition, but the private details of their relationship remain shrouded in mystery. It is unclear at this point how would Scott interpret her, but in Kirby, he found an actress with a wide emotional range to match Phoenix’s.
Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte
Ridley Scott was impressed by Phoenix's performance in "Joker", and "Napoleon" could be another great chance for Phoenix to win an Oscar. Napoleon Bonaparte was a ruthless leader who forged a military dictatorship from the ashes of a popular revolution. His complex nature makes for a fascinating character, and all available evidence indicates a subtle and confident performance from Phoenix.
Audiences will have to wait until the film's release on November 22 to confirm this, but the marketing campaign surrounding "Napoleon" suggests a detailed character study of one of the most divisive men in history. Phoenix has already shown that he has the emotional depth to do justice to the role.