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It sounds strange to say that a 2-hour-and-38-minute-long epic like Ridley Scott’s Napoleon feels rushed, but even a runtime that capacious proves too short for this ambitious but muddled film to cover almost three decades of its subject’s absurdly eventful life. Between his rise to power in his mid-20s and his death in 1821 at age 51 (played at all those ages by the 49-year-old Joaquin Phoenix), Napoleon Bonaparte packed in a lot of history-making. He was a brash military leader and a passionate supporter of the anti-royalist ideals of the French Revolution who would nonetheless seize control of the country in a coup d’état and, soon after, crown himself emperor in a ceremony of unprecedented pomp: The famous Jacques-Louis David painting of the coronation, with the would-be Caesar holding the royal headgear aloft, is reproduced by Scott in precise and sumptuous detail.
During a dozen-year stretch of international conflict known as the Napoleonic Wars, the leader who was sometimes called the “little corporal” (probably a term of affection among his soldiers rather than a description of his height) led the nation through some of the most successful military campaigns in world history, such as the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, and some of the most ill-advised, such as a poorly timed invasion of Russia that was defeated in part by “General Winter.” After that botched venture led to hundreds of thousands of French deaths, Napoleon was exiled to a remote island, escaped with a small force of supporters, and managed to regain power just long enough to be routed at Waterloo and exiled again, this time for good.
Napoleon documents all these events and more with a series of battle sequences that grow ever more staggering in scale and, alas for the viewer, ever less dramatically interesting. The most engaging conflict arises not from the extravagantly orchestrated clashes between armies but from the relationship between Napoleon and Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby), an aristocratic widow who becomes his first wife and the lifelong object of his passion, jealousy, and love, even after he divorces her for failing to bear him a son and heir. From the start, their marriage is contentious, driven by a mutual battle of wills that borders on kink: “You are nothing without me,” she makes him repeat in one scene, having previously seduced him by hiking her skirt to her hips and flashing her private parts. Kirby is a fiercely committed actor with a naturally commanding presence; though she gets far less screen time than Phoenix, her portrait of the power-hungry, pleasure-seeking empress is vivid enough that the movie might easily be titled Napoleon and Joséphine.
The film begins during the Reign of Terror, the grisly period of beheadings and other public killings that took place during the French Revolution. A young officer in the French army looks on from the crowd as Marie Antoinette is led to the guillotine. (Napoleon’s presence at the deposed queen’s execution is pure invention on the part of Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa, and if you object to a Hollywood biopic taking such liberties with the facts, the 85-year-old director of Blade Runner and Alien recommends you “get a life.”) Soon after, the officer makes his reputation by staging a successful attack on an Anglo-Spanish fleet at the harbor of Toulon, in one of the movie’s nimblest and most effective set pieces.
A series of military conquests in Egypt make Napoleon a celebrity upon his return to France, setting the stage for his rapid ascent to near-dictatorial power. But as national heroes go, he is a strange one, socially uncouth and unapologetically grandiose, with a knack for battlefield rhetoric that’s not so much inspiring as it is plainly delusional: “We’re winning!” he shouts to his soldiers on a battlefield littered with French corpses.
Joaquin Phoenix is incapable of giving a dull performance, and his Napoleon is a fascinating tangle of contradictory drives: As petulant, selfish, and impulsive as he often shows himself to be, he is also capable of motivating hordes of people (his soldiers, his fellow politicians, the whole French populace) to believe in his self-mythologizing propaganda, sometimes to the point of sacrificing their own lives. There has been some debate among critics as to whether the script’s out-of-left-field laugh lines are intentional. Having witnessed the high-camp performance of Ben Affleck as a debauched medieval courtier in Scott’s most recent film, The Last Duel, I am certain the director, writer, and actor are on the same page when it comes to poking fun at Napoleon’s fragile ego. Confronting an English rival about the undeniable superiority of that country’s navy, Napoleon delivers the immortal putdown “You think you’re so great just because you have boats!,” then storms off in a huff. Later, defending his imperial-sized appetite to his complaining wife, he grandly declares that “Fate has brought me to this lamb chop.” Phoenix seems to relish these chances to deflate the reputation of a lionized figure who could be as petty at the dinner table as he was large-spirited on the field of battle.
I for one would have appreciated more time getting to know the eccentricities of the private Napoleon and a bit less watching symmetrical rows of bayonet-wielding soldiers get shredded by cannon fire. In Scott’s defense, some of the superbly crafted war scenes do have a solemn, awful beauty. His fictionalized imagining of the Battle of Austerlitz has cannonballs piercing the surface of a frozen lake, drowning men and horses beneath the ice in swirling clouds of blood. But by the time we get to the decisive battle of Waterloo, the carnage has become numbing. Without knowing something more about the gift for military strategy that made Napoleon’s name—or about the identities of any of the soldiers who die when that strategy goes awry—it’s hard to know what to take away from the half a dozen spectacular battle sequences other than “Wow, early 19th-century warfare sure was gruesome.”
Peter Debruge, reviewing Napoleon for Variety, notes that the movie “ricochets between battlefield and bedroom,” an aptly militaristic description of the jarring effect that accompanies each shift between scenes of the emperor’s public and private life. We are either sharing intimate domestic space with Napoleon and Joséphine—so intimate that we witness their childish food fights and distinctly unerotic bouts of doggie-style sex—or viewing the formal geometry of early 19th-century battlefields from a distance so great the camera is often mounted on a drone. What’s missing is the scale of events in between: The viewer learns very little about the political machinations that place and keep Napoleon in power, the international coalitions that constantly threaten to end his reign, or simply the state of his reputation among the French people whose popular will he claims to represent. At one point Napoleon glances in rage at a broadsheet publication featuring a gossip column about Joséphine’s rumored infidelities. I wanted to know: What political faction published that broadsheet? What was the reaction of the reading public when they saw it? In the absence of any sense of how French society at large responded to the tumultuous era of Napoleon’s reign, the audience is stuck with two ultimately unsatisfying choices: We can marvel in extreme closeup at the dysfunctionality of its subject’s private life, or marvel in extreme long-shot at the brutality of armed conflict in the early industrial era.
The film’s biggest flaw is this lack of engagement with the political meaning of Napoleon’s outsized achievements and even more outsized failures. This isn’t some niggling complaint about historical accuracy. Scott is free to compress timelines and concoct colorful 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 the Corsican upstart 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.)
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 business-inspo 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.
For a director as skilled as Scott has shown himself to be in the past, it should have been possible to draw a line between Napoleon’s time and our own, to show how we are still living in the modern age he helped to bring about. Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix last worked together on the 2000 Best Picture winner Gladiator (a movie whose sequel, also directed by Scott, is currently in production, this time without Phoenix’s involvement). Napoleon’s vision of a violent period in the past that continues to resonate in the present belongs in the tradition of Scott’s crowd-pleasing swords-and-sandals epic of a generation ago. It is with regret that I relate that, this time around, I was not entertained.