3 out of 5
Napoleon marks the first film for director Ridley Scott, 85, since he released two films in 2021; The Last Duel and House of Gucci. An official synopsis for the new film describes it as a "spectacle-filled action epic" that follows the real life Bonaparte's rise to power and fall before his eventual death in 1821 at age 51. It basically covers three decades of his military and political life and his relationship with his wife, Josephine.
Many acclaimed directors and scriptwriters have tried to tackle he subject of Napoleon, most notably Stanley Kubrick who, it is alleged had a complete room in his house devoted to the project for almost a decade. Scott shot this epic in a little over 60 days and deserves huge praise for tackling and delivering a film of this scale. We know he can do this. Gladiator told a story on an epic scale and this is similar. As with that film, it sees director Ridley Scott and actor Joaquin Phoenix back together. I can see why Phoenix was cast because Scott's Napoleon is capricious, villainous, scheming, vain, insecure and sometimes cruel - not unlike Emperor Commodus in Gladiator.
The film feels like the production team had a checklist of things to get into the film: Toulon, Josephine, the failed war in Russia, his exile to Elba, Waterloo, his exile to St Helena, etc. In so doing we never really get to the why.
The few moments in the film that excel are, unsurprisingly, the battle scenes. Here, the Scott's prowess shines, showcasing the impact of these wars and battles and Napoleon's strategic mind. The manner in which these battle scenes are filmed is executed exceptionally well, showcasing that Scott hasn't lost his touch in crafting visually stunning and intense sequences. Ridley's recent go-to cinematographer, Darius Wolski, is expert with his use of natural and candlelight, providing some of the few genuinely authentic touches in Napoleon. Whether it's capturing the cold, grey atmosphere of a battle in the dead of winter or framing simple close-up shots illuminated solely by candlelight, Wolski's work stands out in a film that otherwise falls short.
The film’s biggest flaw is this lack of explanation, the why, the consequences of his actions. The lack of engagement with the political meaning of Napoleon’s outsized achievements and even more outsized failures is striking. This isn’t some niggling complaint about historical accuracy. Director Scott is free to compress timelines and concoct colourful details to his heart’s content, but he leaves a huge storytelling opportunity on the table by not taking time to explore the intense debates that raged around Napoleon in his own lifetime. Was he a revolutionary reformer or a merciless autocrat? How did he win the personal admiration even of many who opposed him politically? Major figures known for their political savvy and personal charisma—the legendary French diplomat Talleyrand (Paul Rhys), the English military hero and eventual prime minister the Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett)—make appearances for only as long as needed to advance the story. A short scene in which Napoleon sits down with Wellington post-Waterloo to discuss the conditions of his exile would have been much richer if the audience had any sense of what Bonaparte’s rise to power signified to Wellington, a staunch royalist. (In real life, Napoleon and Wellington never met off the battlefield—all the more reason it’s puzzling for Scott to invent this encounter without investing it with more meaning than he does.)
A central plank of Scott's narrative is Napoleon's relationship with Josephine, the love of his life. Here Vanessa Kirby gives an outstanding performance, which, I'm sure, will pick up a few nods come Award Season. Their relationship is odd. She, clearly knows she has the upper hand and plays Napoleon like a violin. He, on the other hand, is like a creepy needy pervert towards her; constantly looking for validation and assurance, writing every day and wondering why she is not writing back. She clearly knew what she was doing and her raison d'etre is more fleshed out than that of the protagonist.
One of my problems with eth film is the poster tag-line: "He came from nothing. He conquered everything". We never get to see where he came from. there is no back-story beyond a line of exposition on screen. He seemed to have high-ranking connections, including a brother, from almost the start of the film. There is an epic story here but this film is not it.
Maybe the four-hour-long director’s cut, which is scheduled to be released on Apple TV+ after the film’s theatrical run, will expand on some of these truncated story arcs and underdeveloped characters. As it is now, Napoleon plays more like a hastily compiled highlight reel of a life than the full-fledged historical epic its director seems to have intended. “A leader is a dealer in hope,” Napoleon supposedly said, in a possibly apocryphal quote that has made its way onto countless inspirational websites. Watching the story of his rise and fall from the vantage point of our own tumultuous era of international conflict and emerging autocracies, I found myself hoping in vain to understand how such an obviously flawed and self-serving man became a hero to so many.
If you are going to see it, see it on the biggest screen you can find, if only for the well-executed battle scenes. I'm not at all tempted to revisit this when it comes to streaming. Oh, and leave the history books at home.