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Napoleon and his obsession: the controversial vision of Ridley Scott

Most films about Napoleon Bonaparte, the great emperor of France, have focused on the character as a military genius and politician with limitless ambitions who became master of Europe for a decade in the early 19th century.

The film by well-known British director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Allien, Thelma and Louise, GI Jane, Kingdom of Heaven) aims to be an exception. It attempts to explore the complex and tortuous love relationship between the French emperor and his first wife and most important romantic partner, Josephine, and the consequences or effects of their personal ups and downs on the events associated with the work and actions of this powerful man.

The story covers several of the main political and military events of Napoleon’s career – of course, including his impressive absolute triumph at Austerlitz, considered a masterpiece of military art, and Waterloo, his spectacular final defeat -, although the main focus of the film is the personal relationship.

A love that endured everything: lovers and mutual betrayals, disagreements and the ruthless political demands associated with reason of state (incidentally, a term coined by another great French statesman, Cardinal Richelieu), such as divorce. This would allow Bonaparte to father an heir and build a valuable diplomatic alliance with Austria through his marriage to Princess Marie-Louise, daughter of the Austrian Emperor Francis I.

The acting is undoubtedly one of the strong aspects of the film. The performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby are excellent. Phoenix’s Napoleon is a perhaps excessively cold, calculating and dark man who only shows his weak side with Josefina, the object of his obsession.

One of my fears was whether we were going to see a Bonaparte who was too Anglo-Saxon; That fear was unfounded, but I don’t think I’ve seen a completely French Napoleon either. I would recommend the reader and viewer to watch the French series Napoleon from 2002 on YouTube (free), with the magnificent French actor Christian Clavier as the emperor, and Isabella Rosellini as Josephine. This was a production for television with the participation of a luxury cast that included John Malkovich and Gerard Depardieu.

The epic-historical-psychological drama does not suffer from a shortage of magnificent war and action scenes, a strong point in times when technology allows wonders to be done.

Disagreements with historical truth

Historical inaccuracies are one of the weaknesses of Scott’s most recent work. The Battle of Austerlitz in December 1805 did not go as shown and the bombardment of the frozen lake that killed thousands of Austrian and Russian soldiers was the end. Furthermore, there are no records of Napoleon ordering salvos fired at the Egyptian pyramids. Nor did Napoleon personally lead cavalry charges at Borodino (Russia) or at Waterloo.

The British newspaper The Guardian gave the film 5 stars, but large sectors of European critics have been harsh on the production. Particularly in France, where the conservative newspaper Le Figaro wrote that it could be called “Barbie and Ken under the empire.” Bonaparte biographer Patrice Gueniffey called her “very anti-French and very pro-British.”

Scott has replied to critics that a film does not have to be an exact historical account and that one cannot depend on particular opinions to make a film. He ignores the critics and claims that the general public has received it well.

Napoleon is a giant figure in history. He has been hated, loved, revered, seen as a ruthless and callous tyrant, a monster, or as a hero. The great director gives us the vision of him. Let each person decide if he shares it or not. Will the Oscar finally be worth it?

The author is a journalist, former editor of La Prensa de Nicaragua and a passionate lover of cinema (and a fan of Netflix series).

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