From Rod Steiger muttering to himself on the battlefield in Waterloo, to Stanley Kubrick’s aborted efforts, the story of Napoleon Bonaparte has often struggled to be told on the screen. Oppenheimer is still going great guns. It seems historical epics could be back on the menu boys. This Fall we may well be spoiled, as Ridley Scott’s absolutely massive Napoleon comes to the screen.
How big? Well, apparently the movie contains six major battle scenes that are all on the scale of Scott’s previous epics like Gladiator and Kingdom Of Heaven. Like one who would stand against him, Admiral Horatio Nelson of the Royal Navy, Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) had a woman problem. He had a historically volatile relationship with Josephine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby). The relationship was said to be addictive and borderline destructive. In an interview with Empire, Scott talks about the character and the challenges she presents to a writer:
“It was very hard work, because it’s so easy to start talking about battles when I want to talk about Napoleon. So I kept reining it in, I kept going back to Josephine.
What was so challenging, and kind of elusive, about her, was that every single book, whether it was first-hand accounts, third-hand stories, documents, testimonies, and Napoleon’s letters… every single one was completely different.
She was just this massive contradiction. Every time I thought I’d locked down, ‘Okay, this is who she is, and I think I can get hold of this’, something would completely counteract it.”
In the same feature piece, Phoenix says the movie will be different from other biographical films:
“That’s definitely something we wanted to avoid. Certainly speaking for myself, I actively wanted to avoid the conventions of the biopic.”
Scott says that with just two weeks to go until filming started on Napoleon, Joaquin Phoenix told him he had no clue what to do. Scott says the only solution was to work it through together:
“He’ll come in, and you’re f—– two weeks’ out, and he’ll say, ‘I don’t know what to do’. I’ll say, ‘What?!’ ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Oh God. I said, ‘Come in, sit down.’ We sat for ten days, all day, talking scene by scene. In a sense, we rehearsed. Absolutely detail by detail.
Joaquin is about as far from conventional as you can get. Not deliberately, but out of intuition. That’s what makes him tick. If something bothers him, he’ll let you know. He made [‘Napoleon’] special by constantly questioning.
With Joaquin, we can rewrite the goddamn film because he’s uncomfortable. And that kind of happened with ‘Napoleon’. We unpicked the film to help him focus on who Bonaparte was. I had to respect that, because what was being said was incredibly constructive. It made it all grow bigger and better.”
Phoenix also spoke about why he wanted the role, and he admitted that working with Scott again a quarter of a century after Gladiator sealed it for him. Both Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby spoke about one scene in particular that called on Phoenix to slap Kirby:
Kirby: “We were using the real words from their divorce in the church. When that happens, you can faithfully go through an archival re-enactment of it and read out the lines and then go home. But we always wanted to surprise each other… It’s the greatest thing when you have a creative partner and you say, ‘Right, everything’s safe. I’m with you. And we’re gonna go to the dark places together.”
Phoenix: “She said, ‘Look, whatever you feel, you can do.’ I said, ‘Same thing with you.’ She said, ‘You can slap me, you can grab me, you can pull me, you can kiss me, whatever it is’. We had this agreement that we were going to surprise each other and try and create moments that weren’t there, because both of us wanted to avoid the cliche of the period drama. And by that I mean moments that are well-orchestrated and designed… We encouraged each other, demanded of each other, to challenge ourselves to shock each other in moments. And that’s what came out of that, that moment.”
Apple and Sony release Napoleon in cinemas on November 22nd. Not a cape or spandex leotard will be in sight.
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