THE STORY – A look at the military commander’s origins and his swift, ruthless climb to emperor, viewed through the prism of his addictive and often volatile relationship with his wife and one true love, Josephine.
THE CAST – Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby & Tahar Rahim
THE TEAM – Ridley Scott (Director) & David Scarpa (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 157 Minutes
Many filmmakers have made films featuring “Napoleon” from “Time Bandits” to “War And Peace” and Stanley Kubrick famously tried to get a film featuring the great military leader off the ground, but it was never meant to be. Now, in comes Ridley Scott, who is no stranger to the historical epic drama, giving us films such as “Kingdom Of Heaven,” “The Last Duel,” and the Best Picture Oscar-winning “Gladiator.” With a large-scale budget and his expertise, one would think he would be a perfect fit to tell the story of the man who rose up the ranks as a Captain in France’s army, to its General and eventually its Emperor in his conquest to take over the entire world. However, despite his towering ambitions and decades of technical experience, Scott is still only at his best when he’s working off of a good script and free from the constrictions of studio interference. “Napoleon” suffers from both, resulting in a tonally inconsistent film that feels unfinished but, worst of all, unfulfilling.
“Napoleon” tells the story of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) from his rise as a Captain in the French army at the end of the French Revolution to a brilliant military strategist and general to a supreme tyrannical ruler who desired to conquer the entire world. His relentless pursuit of power and glory is expressed through the lens of his combustible infatuation with his wife, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), who had such a strong hold over him that their relationship informed his every move until it led to his inescapable downfall.
It makes sense why Ridley Scott would want to reunite with Phoenix following their Oscar-nominated work on “Gladiator” to tackle “Napoleon.” As a deconstruction of the “Great Man” biopic, which points its fingers at today’s petulant world leaders and politicians, the material is there in Scarpa’s screenplay to provide a thoughtful exploration of character relevant to the present. However, what Scarpa, Scott, and Phoenix cannot get right is the film’s overall tone, as it sways back and forth between deathly serious and absurdly camp. Listening to Phoenix’s Napoleon whine to his enemies, “You think you’re so great because you have boats!!” and “Destiny had brought me this lambchop,” along with him oinking like a pig during one of many kinky sex scenes between him and Vanessa Kirby, among multiple other instances of childlike behavior will likely live on through memes and become a laughing stock rather than be taken seriously as a powerful piece of work about a man who nearly enslaved the entire world and whose reign led to the death of 3 million people during what history would call the “Napoleonic Wars.” Phoenix has always been terrific at portraying the pitiful inferiority of his characters, which is why he’s perfectly cast as the pathetic tyrannical ruler who started as a mere Captain and rose the ranks to become a self-proclaimed Emperor of the world.
When Napoleon says he’s “not subject to petty insecurity,” you cannot help but laugh at the audacity and ignorance of what Scott and Phoenix are attempting to depict. Jokes about the ruler’s height aside (there is one gag of him needing a stool so he can be at eye level with the face of a long-dead Egyptian ruler after he conquers the country by firing canons into the pyramids), for a man with such wealth and power, he’s driven not by ambition or greed but, as the film displays, through his insecurity in his relationship with Josephine. There is doubt over whether he or Josephine is to blame for why, after years of marriage, she hasn’t been able to produce an heir for him. Her affair while he was away conquering the world also remains a sore point for him throughout the film, as he constantly worries about losing her to someone else. There is a possessive quality to the relationship that is fitting for the times. Still, the screenplay doesn’t do Kirby any favors as she’s degraded, labeled as a whore by her husband, and portrayed as weak when she should be strong, if not publicly, at least privately with him. Kirby’s screen presence remains intact as she’s a consistent, pure talent, but her Lady Macbeth pretender character is underutilized.
Tahar Rahim (a significant actor in his own right from powerful performances in “A Prophet” and “The Mauritanian“) is quickly forgotten about as Paul Barras, a politician who was the executive head of the Directory during the French Revolution and who helps Napoleon come into power, once the film moves beyond the first act. All the other supporting players, including Matthew Needham as Napoleon’s brother Lucien, Paul Rhys as Talleyrand, a leading diplomat of France and trusted confidant of Napoleon and Rupert Everett as Arthur Wellesley the Duke of Wellington (whose brief appearance will leave you wanting more as he viciously cuts down the image of who Napoleon thinks he is) are all sparingly used that none of them have any lasting impact on the film.
And that’s mostly part of the problem: the film feels as if it’s been hacked to bits in the editing room. Connective pieces of the narrative are missing, which could help bring context to critical historical events such as the Congress of Vienna, the opening sequence where the French Revolution reaches its climax with the beheading of Marie Antoinette, the end of what was known as the reign of terror where 45,000 prisoners were released, the royalist insurrection that soon followed, and Napoleon’s coup d’état where France’s government went from a three-person counsel to him announcing himself as the sole ruling Emperor. His invasions of Egypt, Austria, and Russia and even the known battle of Waterloo, where he was ultimately crushed by his enemies, resulting in his facing permanent exile, are all crammed into a single film. But how did any of these events happen? Unless you walk into “Napoleon” already knowing your history, you’ll find there’s a whole lot of plot but very little substance behind it. Such rushed and unexplained storytelling also spreads to the relationships between the characters, leaving the audience feeling as cold towards the movie overall as the ice of Austerlitz.
This is where Ridley Scott’s latest gets a chance to flex the hardest: during its many epic battle scenes. From attacking ships docked in a harbor under cover of nightfall to the raging canon fire that tears through regiments of men’s bodies to the blocking of hundreds of extras in battle formations for both on-the-ground and on-horseback attacks, this is Scott’s sweet spot, and no one does historical action on the same rank of scale he does. These battles are bloody, unmerciful, and presented on a vast scale, rarely seen in today’s cinematic landscape anymore. They’re almost worth the price of admission alone. Crafts such as the opulent costumes, the striking cinematography, the thunderous and dynamic sound, and the grand production design are glorious across the board. However, with little emotional investment in the story or characters and the added issue of knowing the outcomes of all the major battles, it becomes a tedious expenditure for any audience to endure, no matter how well-crafted nearly everything is.
Announcing there would be a more extended four-hour cut of “Napoleon” in advance of the film’s theatrical release, which will hopefully fill in some of these missing gaps both for the story and the characters and thus provide more richness to the film, is a curious one as it already sends a message to the audience that this is not the final version of the film Ridley Scott, David Scarpa, and Joaquin Phoenix wanted to make. Audiences might as well sit at home and wait for that inevitable cut. Still, even then, considering what we have here over the course of over two and a half hours, it’s hard to imagine many will want to revisit this take on a character so fascinating, so peculiar, so larger than life, it’s possible no definitive version of this seemingly great man and the historical events he inspired can be conveyed by the confines of what a major Hollywood studio was willing to give Scott. What we have is a captivating misfire, but it is commendable in its endeavor. It will likely be analyzed and studied within Scott’s filmography as a case where all the pieces were in place to create something memorable and meaningful. Instead, it will be considered an afterthought (at least until the director’s cut gets released and a possible reevaluation of this movie may occur) compared to the other cinematic masterpieces he has already constructed and unleashed onto the world.