Witness The Rise and Fall of an Emperor in Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon’
Dec 4, 2023   •   Mikhail Lecaros
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Dec 4, 2023   •   Mikhail Lecaros
Napoleon is the latest release from director Ridley Scott (Matchstick Men, Alien), a sprawling, big-screen look at one of history’s greatest conquerors. Will Napoleon take its place alongside Scott’s Gladiator and The Last Duel, or will this historical biopic go the way of his Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood?
The notion of a big-budget film on Napoleon’s life is hardly new, with greats such as Stanley Kubrick (2001, A Clockwork Orange) having famously tried — and failed — to bring it to life. Covering a wide swath of European history from the point of view of one of history’s most complicated rulers, as seen through the lens of his doomed love story, the material would be challenging to any filmmaker. But, given that the last significant effort was 1970’s Waterloo and, before that, 1927’s silent Napoleon, the time was ripe for an updated take. Thus, hopes were high when Ridley Scott (The Martian, Blade Runner) was announced to direct the project.
There is a compelling argument to be made for Scott as one of the greatest directors of all time; with films like Alien, Thelma & Louise, Black Hawk Down, and Gladiator under his belt, it’s not hard to see why. Unfortunately, given that Scott’s also responsible for titles like House of Gucci, Alien: Covenant, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Hannibal, and A Good Year, his cinematic beatification will probably have to wait.
So how does Napoleon stack up?
The film opens in the late 18th century, with the French Revolution in full swing. As the peasantry does away with the aristocracy that had previously oppressed them, military officer Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix, Her, Signs) begins a journey that will lead to his coronation as emperor. As Bonaparte’s reputation grows through a series of military victories, the young general pursues a relationship with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby, Mission: Impossible, Hobbes & Shaw).
Following a successful coup, Bonaparte ascended the throne before setting out to forge alliances with neighboring nations through diplomacy and brute force. When his hubris leads to the loss of over half a million French soldiers, the film follows his downfall and subsequent exile. Escaping exile upon hearing of his beloved Josephine’s declining health, the stage is set for the emperor’s infamous defeat at Waterloo.
Joaquin Phoenix has played an insecure ruler for Ridley Scott before, turning in a memorably deranged performance as Commodus in the 2000’s Gladiator. Phoenix is capable of great depth, but here, he plays the titular ruler as a petulant, insecure man-child, hewing closer to his depictions in British propaganda than anything drawn from history. Phoenix’s Bonaparte is a preening caricature, as prone to carnal whims as he is to emotional meltdowns, making it exceedingly difficult to imagine [this version of] the man leading a household, much less an army.
Vanessa Kirby makes the most of her role as Josephine, the woman whose infidelity he was willing to risk his career for. Having entered into their marriage to secure her social status, Joesphine’s adulterous ways are touched upon, but her complicated relationship with Bonaparte isn’t fleshed out in any meaningful way. As a result, their dalliance plays out like the bulk of the film’s historical references: rushed, functional, and only slightly based on fact.
The script, from David Scarpa (All the Money in the World), tries to cram in so many historical allusions and references that it feels like a checklist rather than any attempt at telling a proper story. It’s bad enough that we don’t get any real reason for the French people to rally behind him (despite his popularity being mentioned multiple times), but his relationship with Josephine — the relationship meant to give emotional context to his journey — is woefully undercooked. By flitting back and forth between the love story and the battles being waged without any real emotional connection to the characters, it’s not entirely clear how we’re meant to feel.
When it comes to the aforementioned battles, Scott has lost none of his flair for staging onscreen action – whatever these scenes are missing in verisimilitude is made up for by the slick, big-budget flair. For instance, a major sequence with an army retreating across an ice field probably never happened, but it looks cool, so history be damned.
Perhaps if the film had been built around more of Bonaparte’s military campaigns and conquests, we could have engaged with Napoleon on a purely visceral level — as it is, the clunky interjections of the love story leave us with a handsomely-mounted production that can’t decide what it wants to be.
Despite an excellent cast and Scott’s obvious ambition, Napoleon is let down by its overall lack of focus. While it’s entirely possible that a better version of the film was lost in the edit, that isn’t what’s showing in theaters now. Hopefully, just as Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven and Blade Runner were redeemed by their eventual director’s cuts, audiences will someday see what Ridley Scott originally intended.
In the meantime, all we can do is judge the film as it is, burdened — much like Bonaparte — by the tantalizing possibilities of what could have been.
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