En garde. A connoisseur of the onscreen battle, Ridley Scott stepped away from production on his anticipated Gladiator 2 to usher in the latest depiction of a power-hungry, pitifully-in-love Napoleon Bonaparte on Thursday night.
Napoleon, following the meteoric rise and fall of the 19th century French emperor — produced by Apple and theatrically distributed by Sony — premiered in London’s Leicester Square with frontman Joaquin Phoenix leading the troops on a rain-soaked red, white and blue carpet.
“It was such a shame not to be able to have show business at its biggest and its best for all those months [during the recently concluded writers and actors strikes], so it feels really fantastic to be back,” Tom Rothman, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures’ Motion Picture Group, told The Hollywood Reporter.
It wasn’t long before Rothman was hailing Phoenix’s performance: “You couldn’t do a legendary figure without a legendary actor.”
As captivating as Phoenix’s Napoleon is — a man for whom, in Scott’s creation, invading countries takes no more of an emotional toll than his wife’s infidelity — it is Vanessa Kirby’s portrayal of empress Josephine that proves scene-stealing. What of her husky-voiced, steely-eyed performance was drawn from research into the real Josephine — and just how much was Kirby’s own genius?
“As with any fictional interpretation, who they are onscreen and compared to the history, there’s always creative license,” Kirby told THR. “It’s like in The Crown [in which Kirby played an often off-the-rails Princess Margaret in seasons one and two]. I learned that behind closed doors, it’s an imagined version of events … I read every book I possibly could about her to capture this very elusive, interesting, strange energy she had.”
And for every grisly, graphic battle — including a memorable stint in Austerlitz where hundreds of Napoleon’s enemies are plunged under the surface of a frozen lake, their blood bright against the ice — there’s a love scene. If there’s one takeaway Scott and writer David Scarpa want audiences to have, it’s how devastatingly infatuated Napoleon was with Josephine.
The romance is stark against a backdrop of brutish warfare. Which is more central to the military leader’s story?
“I’d probably say for me, the magical experience was getting to explore this dynamic, unusual relationship,” Kirby said. “Even though I was texting Joaquin all the way through the battles like, ‘How are you doing?’ and he was freezing in the U.K. winter.”
Even the worst of the British weather couldn’t faze Ridley Scott. The 85-year-old’s cast and crew took every opportunity to heap praise on the director. “We should all only wish and hope and aspire to have an ounce of his piss and vinegar,” Rothman added. “I have always admired him, admired his movies; I feel privileged to work with him. But now, I mean the guy looks and acts full of fire, and it’s inspiring.”
Scottish actor Mark Bonnar, playing Jean-Andoche Junot, a general of Napoleon’s and commander of the French invasion of Portugal in 1807, echoed the sentiment: “I’m a massive fan apart from anything else and have been almost my whole life — so that came with its own ‘Oh my God,’ moment approaching set for the first time,” he said. “But he is fucking lovely. He’s down to earth, he’s practical, he knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. He’s a general.”
As for the general portrayed onscreen, Bonnar says Scott and Phoenix — reuniting 23 years after Gladiator — have made an “epic, complex, thrilling” biopic.
“[Napoleon] was a man of huge contradictions — fascinating, jealous, bad-tempered — but his men loved him,” he said. “They loved him — he fought beside them. He’s more written about than anybody else apart from Jesus. So that kind of tells you why Ridley was attracted.”
According to 24-year-old French-Finish actor Edouard Philipponnat, who plays Alexander I, Tsar of Russia, Scott and Phoenix appeared to relish their reunion.
“I remember … I tried to steal every move that Joaquin would make to try to not let him upstage me,” Philipponnat revealed. “We finished nose-to-nose in a scene, and he looked at me like he wanted to deck me. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I disrespected him.’ And Ridley comes out laughing and says, ‘That’s my man,’ and he goes to Joaquin and says, ‘I told you, you couldn’t go easy on him.’”
Philipponnat joins Ben Miles, Paul Rhys, Matthew Needham, Tahar Rahim and Rupert Everett in the film, which will be released in the U.S. and U.K. on Wednesday.
We all know of Scott’s filmmaking prowess. Asked if there’s anything most people might not know about the Oscar-winner, Bonner replied, “He can touch his toes — that’s pretty cool, right?”