Monday, June 10, 2024

Joaquin Phoenix's depiction of Napoleon is one for the ages

While there is plenty of great stuff to see on Apple TV, there is also a lifetime’s worth elsewhere. So I cancelled my subscription upon completing 2023's Napoleon - a great way to go out with a bang.

Joaquin Phoenix has built a legend with some of the greatest performances in modern film, including The Joker, Her, Walk the Line, Quills, and The Master. He is the perfect Napoleon Bonaparte and this movie touches nicely on the French leader's major war battles and personal conflicts. It could have equally been a 10-episode TV series to fill in many more of the endlessly interesting details of his life.

Here are some of the things depicted in the movie that everyone high-school age and over should know about Napoeon Bonaparte:

  • The film's story opens in 1789, with Marie Antoinette getting beheaded for her sympathies to the supposed enemies of France. This welcomed in the famed Reign of Terror. 
  • Napoleon Bonaparte is in the crowd to witness the beheading. He is a young ambitious soldier from Corsica who is promoted after an impressive raid of the British at Toulon.
  • He marries Joséphine de Beauharnais, who had been locked up as part of the Reign, and they have a robust sex life but can't conceive children. They also are not faithful to each other. (More than 41,000 prisoners were released at the end of The Reign of Terror.)
  • As the tables turn and the French Royalists are rounded up, the former prisoners and people like Napoleon move into the mansions of Paris.
  • The Battle of Austerlitz is a key exhibit of Napoleon's strategic genius, as he lures the Austrian emenies into a trap that backs them onto a frozen lake where Napoleon annihilates them.
  • In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia, only to find Moscow vacated in the dead of winter. Moscow burns, but France retreats, having lost an astouding amount of its military - estimated at more than half a million French dead.
  • The failure in Russia causes the first of his exiles, with the powers that be shipping him off to the island of Elba. 
  • After he sweet talks his way back into leadership, an epic Battle of Waterloo scene unfolds, which is actually the beginning of the end for Napoleon. After Joséphine has already succumbed to pneumonia (after their divorce), he also dies in another exile on the island of Saint Helena in 1821 - soon after witnessing an ominous fly in his drink.
  • The movie notes that nearly 3 million people died in Napoleon's wars.
Whether he was a great man or something else, it seems difficult to tell - certainly from this movie. But it is great cinema. I loved it, and if you want some historical fiction with love, war, and more, you should watch it. Napoleon left me wanting to know lots more than I currently do about this wildly fascinating time in human history.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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