You Must Be Joaquin

I’ve got a special deal with my local cinema. You pay them £90 and you can see any new film they’re screening, as many times as you want, any day. It’s a good deal, except it doesn’t cover older films, like It’s A Wonderful Life, and what kind of Christmas is it if you have to pay to see that? Jimmy Stewart would have had something to say about it. Elmer would, anyway.

On Tuesday, because I’m on a week’s leave (Twas the week before Christmas, I wasn’t at work, I’d bought all the presents, this wasn’t a perk..) I went to see Napolean. The film, you understand, the one with Joaquin Phoenix who apparently isn’t the same Joaquin I saw dancing flamenco in Manchester about a hundred years ago and didn’t like. It’s confused me for years.

It’s Ridley Scott, so you know the lighting is going to be epic and it’ll all be ten times better on a big screen. And according to Indiewire, Joaquin turned the whole film around.

“Joaquin is about as far from conventional as you can get. Not deliberately, but out of intuition,” Scott said. “That’s what makes him tick. If something bothers him, he’ll let you know. He made [‘Napoleon’] special by constantly questioning. Joaquin is probably the most special, thoughtful actor I’ve ever worked with.” 

Scott ended up rewriting the whole “goddamn film” to focus on what Napoleon Bonaparte was like in real life. 

Like anyone else with access to Google, I know a bit about Napolean. Corsican. Hat. One hand shoved in his tunic front. The Nile. Nelson. Trafalgar. Waterloo, where the glorious and victorious by God’s good grace faced-down Johnny Frenchy and taught the Continent the doctrine of peace through superior firepower entirely single-handed, apart from those pesky Germans who turned up to help at the last moment, and the Russian Winter, obviously. I thought making one of the characters took tath too far. Joaquin was that you who did that? Stop it. It’s corny. They practically said it in inverted commas and did the fingers thing at the same time.

So I know some things about Napolean. And I know something Joaquin Phoenix and Ridle Scott apparently don’t know about him.

Napolean wasn’t American.

I nay! Like, amazeballs, ya?

Whatever else he did or didn’t do, Napolean never, not once, ever, spoke with an American accent. Yes, I know it’s a film. No, I think maybe making the character speak in French might not have worked, although it didn’t do Das Boot or Der Untergang any harm. But Napolean speaking like a minor player in The Sopranos, I’m 99.9% sure that never happened.

“With ‘Napoleon, I think we dug in and found the character, or as close to what he may have been,” Scott added. “With Joaquin, we can rewrite the goddamn film because he’s uncomfortable. And that kind of happened with ‘Napoleon,’” he said. “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.

You know what, as Tony Soprano might have said? I think that’s bullshit. I can see there might be a good Napolean-Tony Soprano dramatic link, the outsider striving to get in, the quest for dignity, the allergic reaction to being contradicted and all that schtick. But it rings hollow. The German characters in the film speak with a German accent. The British characters speak with a British accent. Most of the French characters speak with an accent that ok, wouldn’t get them a part in ‘Allo ‘Allo, but their accents aren’t noticeably American. Not so our hero.

And I’m really afraid that’s what it’s all about. In the dying days of a time when America could credibly call itself the global policeman, even though the Sherrif isn’t supposed to elect himself, this is the story. If you have a big budget film, you’d better make sure that the kid in Ohio knows who the good guy is, and conflicted and violent though he is, he’s American, kid, you betcha.

Right at the end, in what can only loosely be described as the closing credits, there was a body count of how many people died thanks to Napolean, something that US forces didn’t bother to do in Afghanistan or Iraq because unless they were going home under the Stars and Bars they literally did not count. And six million people dead thanks to this Corsican guy, isn’t that a bit like Hitler? Despite the American accent? And the violence? The waste, the obsession, the futility of having a Republican revolution and declaring yourself Emperor? Well hey, you can’t make an omelet, as Tony would spell it, without breaking legs. Maybe it’s all a really clever allegory, but I don’t buy it. I think it’s the biggest plea to that kid in Ohio I’ve ever seen.

Yeah, there may be all these folk talking about moral ambiguities and freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose but kid, remember this. We’re OK if we keep shooting the bad guys. And I don’t know why you did it, Ridley. I thought you were better than that. Or maybe it’s just a dumb movie.

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