The ferocious battles that follow are all spectacular, all distinct from each other, and all easy to follow. Amid the smoke, blood and chaos, Scott ensures that you can see who’s winning and why. As cavalrymen charge across misty plains and infantrymen get blasted to pieces by cannonballs, Napoleon is a reminder that no other director makes films like Scott does. That clarity is there when its hero is striding through palaces and cathedrals, too. Captions spell out who is speaking and where they are, so there is an obvious purpose to all of his encounters with the world’s politicians (played by a succession of British character actors and comedians, mercifully sticking to their own accents).
He meets his match in the Duke of Wellington, played by Rupert Everett – the one man who sneers more contemptuously than he does – but the most important encounter in his life is with Joséphine, played by Vanessa Kirby. This widowed aristocrat entrances him at first sight, and Kirby is coolly charismatic enough to account for the coup de foudre. Poised yet down-to-earth, her eyes twinkling, she always seems to be smirking at a joke that only she understands. Phoenix’s performance is just as enjoyable. A distant relative of the Emperor he played in Scott’s earlier epic, Gladiator, his Napoleon is relaxed to the point of sleepiness when he’s on the battlefield, a petulant brat in meetings, and a tongue-tied arrested adolescent where women are concerned.