Drawn to play Josephine

Vanessa Kirby at the world premiere of Napoleon. Photo: Reuters
Vanessa Kirby at the world premiere of Napoleon. Photo: Reuters
Gazing out of Napoleon with sly, cat-eyed calculation, Vanessa Kirby turns the whole movie into a power game, one that eclipses the more brutal expressions of might on the battlefield. Of course, the epic contains cavalry campaigns at Austerlitz and Waterloo, a burning Moscow and an unfortunate Great Pyramid used for cannon target practise — it prints the facts and the legend both.

But take us back to Josephine’s drawing room, where dom-versus-dom dynamics result in a showdown that could have filled several seasons of reality TV, with Kirby’s purr often carrying the day. She gets the film’s final word, haunting Napoleon from beyond the grave, just as she reportedly colonised his last gasp on his deathbed.

Kirby’s Josephine joins the sisterhood of director Ridley Scott’s women, characters marked by strength and savvy, overtly in Thelma & Louise and G.I. Jane, but just as palpably in scene-stealing turns from Lorraine Bracco in 1987’s Someone to Watch Over Me, Jodie Comer in The Last Duel and Lady Gaga in the deep-dish-of-crazy House of Gucci. Though his choice in scripts can sometimes be suspect, Scott may be the movies’ most consistent stealth feminist.

"Ripley was such a reference for me," Kirby says of Scott’s most iconic female creation, brought to life by Sigourney Weaver in the 1979 classic Alien. Kirby is game to indulge my pet theory — up to a point.

"The film didn’t signal endlessly that she was a woman," she says. "She was just a human. She happened to be female. And I think that, to me, is what radical female film-making should do. I would much rather it be less gendered. I want to play a human being that men can relate to because it’s a human experience that she’s going through, and that feels like the next frontier of film-making we need to get more of."

Wimbledon-born Kirby, 35, is best known for her two-season turn as a decidedly human Princess Margaret in The Crown, composed of equal parts flintiness and heartache. To Kirby, it is these "messy, contradictory, anti-heroine-type parts" that inspire her. It’s also what drew her to Josephine.

"There must have been something inherently unknowable about her, something that he couldn’t possess," Kirby offers as a window into Napoleon’s obsession with the ex-courtesan (especially visible in Joaquin Phoenix’s humorous take, bordering on adolescent frustration). "He could go and conquer all these lands but he couldn’t hold her. She had to navigate an extremely difficult world to survive. And he could never own her." — TCA

By Joshua Rothkopf