When I first saw the trailer for Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, there were three things that immediately jumped out to me. First was that the battle scenes looked amazing. I’m not much for using CGI on a grand scale when it comes to set pieces, but Scott is one of the few who can do it competently, and even within the confines of a two-minute preview, it looked like the editing was going to make it seem real enough. Second was a bit of confusion as to why Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) was acting like Lady Macbeth, turning the former Emperor of France into a complete simp. Third was the fact that not only was Joaquin Phoenix not doing a French accent in the title role, he wasn’t affecting any dialect at all. I know that a lot of European stories have actors default to a British voice, but it really stood out that Phoenix was just talking in his normal one.
As the release date approached, I started doing my research, and one other red flag was raised, the prospect of a “director’s cut” of the film. The movie, which stands at two and a half hours, is apparently incomplete according to Scott, who has a preferred version that adds two more hours to the affair, which will be released on AppleTV once the normal theatrical run is concluded. That screamed to me that this was going to be an overlong, unfocused story, or at minimum that Scott himself couldn’t decide which aspects of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life and career warranted attention.
Well, to paraphrase the character himself, both in the trailer and the finished product, I’ll be the first to admit when I make a mistake. This time, I simply didn’t. This isn’t a terrible movie by any means, but it is hopelessly bogged down by the very issues that were glaring from the first sales pitch. Hell, the tagline of, “He came from nothing. He conquered everything” is just bullshit on its face. There are some good things to talk about, including one that probably wasn’t intentional, but on the whole, I can’t recommend it.
The first problem right off the bat is the scope of the plot. Beginning with the execution of Marie Antoinette, when Napoleon himself was a colonel in the new French Republican Army, the film spans the entirety of Bonaparte’s life, all the way up until his death in exile on St. Helena. That’s just far too much to cram into 150 minutes. We’re talking one of the most famous — and infamous — leaders in world history. You can’t condense his entire career into that short of a space. This is why Scott has a four-plus hour long version, but that also misses the point. With the sheer onslaught of names, dates, characters, and locations, the average audience can’t absorb all that information to keep up with it. For example, there’s a scene about two thirds of the way through where Napoleon’s mother (Sinéad Cusack), has him impregnate one of his mistresses to see if the problems he and Josephine have in conceiving an heir lies with him or not. The scene itself is fine, but Letizia Bonaparte is such a non-entity in the film up to that point (I think she’s referenced a few times and makes one noteworthy appearance) that I honestly forgot who she was. I thought it was just some other random servant or advisor, because we’ve been bombarded by so many different and disparate pieces to this grand puzzle that we can’t even see the damn box art anymore.
If Scott truly wanted this movie to be impactful, he needed to pick one aspect and stick with it. You want to tell the torrid love story of Napoleon and Josephine? Fine, leave everything else in the background and focus purely on the romantic and human element. You want to talk about his tactical prowess and associated hubris? Fine, take us through the strategy sessions and the innovative ways that he engaged in battle only, and forget the palace intrigue entirely. You want to document his authoritarian, paranoid, and dangerous time on the throne in a way that ties to Donald Trump? It’s a bit tired and obvious, as allegories go, but fine, keep the plot centered on that and leave Josephine as a side character. As it stands, though, you’re basically giving the audience a crash course in French history, but since there’s always a need to embellish for the sake of presentation, it’s not even an accurate lesson, and it just feels like misplaced homework.
But since we have to judge the film we got rather than the one we want, let’s break down this triad tale and see what works and what doesn’t, because each side of this weird dynamic does have something worth mentioning. It still doesn’t add up to a satisfying whole, but I can understand where people might love or hate any part of it. This is also where we’ll find the other core problems with the overall picture.
The military side of things is by far the best. As I said, even from the trailers, you could tell that Scott was going to orchestrate some pretty awesome set pieces. Napoleon’s first major victory, the siege of Toulon, is mostly fascinating for the little things it gets right in such a big sequence. As usual, there are historical inaccuracies, like the fact that Napoleon never got stabbed by an enemy bayonet, or that his horse likely not only survived, but it was entirely against Napoleon’s nature to ride into battle at all, because as an officer he commanded troops rather than fight alongside them, and he was never good at riding at all. But you can forgive those minor creative flourishes for the image of a cannonball absolutely ripping the horse to shreds, only for Napoleon to collect it the next day as a gift for his mother, or the fact that Scott lights the entire battle in a way that, for once, we can actually see what’s going on during a nighttime fight, or the fact that the cinematography and sound design are about as good as the man has ever put forth.
Those stellar touches continue throughout Napoleon’s conquests. The battle of Austerlitz didn’t actually have a giant frozen lake where he trapped the Austrian army only to drown them, but there were several small ponds, so the exaggeration aids the visual profile while still getting the point across about how Napoleon outwitted his adversary. The march to Moscow, highlighted by the burning of the city, reinforces the quixotic nature of his campaign across Europe in visibly bombastic but thematically understated tones. The final battle at Waterloo is depicted as the lost cause we all know it is, but there’s an odd nobility in his last defeat, a resignation that results in Phoenix’s finest moments of the entire performance, mostly because he’s not saying anything and making us giggle at his very American voice.
Still, there are noticeable flaws. This is where the overload of information probably hurts the most, because while we know the figurative and literal bullet points of Napoleon’s career, we don’t really understand why he’s doing any of this. There’s no motivation other than the nebulous idea of advancement and power. I mean, why blow up a pyramid, which we know never happened? Why unearth a mummy just to stand on a stool next to the corpse? We’re given so much data about everything he did, but we understand almost nothing about what drove him to do it all. We get some hints here and there, which I’ll get to shortly, but it’s not nearly enough to justify all these globetrotting jaunts to shoot people in the face.
This leads us to the political stuff. I damn near fell asleep at this. When he becomes Emperor, Napoleon makes a big show about taking the crown of France and placing it on his head. Okay, but then what? It’s a five-second piece of a scene that ultimately has no bearing on anything. All of his various co-conspirators over the years, from his brother Lucien (Matthew Needham), to Foreign Minister Talleyrand (Paul Rhys), and so many others not worth mentioning, barely leave any impression at all, and like Napoleon’s mother, basically blend into the furniture until they have some sort of plot utility. Even the high profile enemies like Francis II (Miles Jupp), Tsar Alexander I (Édouard Philipponnat), or even the Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett) hardly register.
This is because Napoleon himself, as presented in this film, is basically never threatened. He takes his own initiative, whether well-advised or not, gloms on to other people, betrays when he feels the need, and even leads himself into his own downfall. We get a few nods to some offscreen minutiae, which can inform individual actions if they click in your head at the right time, but it’s mostly meaningless because we never really see all the stuff that’s being discussed. While the French and English were certainly not friends at the time, the way he’s depicted here, Napoleon would have likely been just fine if he left well enough alone and worked for the prosperity of France rather than picking shortsighted fights to show how tough he is (again with the Trump comparisons).
In a weird way, though, this sector of the story leads into one of the more enjoyable elements, the unintentional comedy. It is at times hilarious to watch this power brokering play out, mostly because Scott shows it as being more important than it is, and partly because the performances from just about everyone are so laughably bad. It starts from the very beginning, with Marie Antoinette’s death at the guillotine (the fact that everyone pronounces it “gill-o-teen” instead of “gee-uh-teen” even though it’s a literal French word only adds to the chuckles). The actress, Catherine Walker, doesn’t go to her death with contrition or pride, instead turning up her nose at the entire crowd, even when they’re pelting her with produce (because nothing says “we’re starving because of the aristocracy” like wasting food). When the blade comes down, the executioner holds her prosthetic head aloft almost like a puppet, toying with it for the crowd while CGI blood flows from the dead lips. It’s hysterically funny.
It only goes on from there. One of the council-members gets arrested during breakfast with toast in his mouth. When Louis XVIII (Ian McNeice) is put on the throne during Napoleon’s first exile, he couldn’t be a more stereotypical fat cat if his name was Garfield. When Napoleon is defeated at Waterloo, he gives a speech to a bunch of young British cabin boys like a certain former President at his rallies, talking about how he was perfect and he only lost because of the failures of others. When Arthur Wellesley interrupts, Napoleon brags about how much everyone loves him. It’s all very silly, but it’s not the least bit inspired or engaging. It feels more like a cosplay, which renders one of the meet-cute lines between Napoleon and Josephine all the more ironic. “What is this costume you’re wearing?” she asks, derisively. “It’s my uniform,” he answers, matter-of-factly, but in a way that still feels like a joke.
And that brings us to the marriage of our two leads. I didn’t buy it for one second, mostly because from scene to scene, Scott apparently couldn’t decide what he wanted their dynamic to be. At first Josephine is a woman who catches Napoleon’s eye, and he tries to build mystique around himself which she thinks is foolish, but still charming. Then we find out she’s a widow, and that she can manipulate a situation to get what she wants, including somehow hypnotizing Napoleon by showing him her vagina. There’s an entire scene where Napoleon asserts his dominance by telling her that she’s nothing without him, only for her to turn the tables and insist that he say the same about her.
All this happens and you think, maybe, this is a roundabout way of doing the whole, “behind every great man is a great woman” trope, but it just keeps going back and forth. Napoleon is abusive, then he’s on his knees begging for her forgiveness. He has sex with her in a way that you can tell she clearly doesn’t enjoy, and then writes needy letters that feel like the 18th Century version of the “Do you like me?” notes that grade schoolers pass around in class. Napoleon leaves Egypt because he learns that Josephine is having an affair, only to admit that he’s having one as well. Their marriage dangles on a knife’s edge because they can’t conceive together, to the point that Napoleon’s mom initiates the aforementioned mistress bedding, but a) Napoleon had plenty of illegitimate children, and b) Josephine herself had two kids from her first marriage. Clearly they both have working junk.
This seems like it’s meant to demonstrate some kind of fraught melodrama in a complicated relationship, but really it’s soap opera nonsense that, again, only becomes entertaining due to unintended comedy. Tell me you can listen to Phoenix’s narration of his letters and not laugh out loud at how stupid they are. Look me dead in the eye and tell me that you believe for one second that a serial philanderer like Napoleon can be hypnotized by Vanessa Kirby’s snootch. This is a bit, right? I’m waiting for rainbows to shoot out of it. And despite all of this, it could work if a) the performances felt like something beyond sleepwalking, and b) the story didn’t basically just stop after the divorce. There are other scenes between the two, but Scott builds up this potential powerful woman in the shadows only for her to meekly walk away when the appropriate moment comes in the timeline, all but wasting everything leading up to it.
The closest I can think to how any of this makes sense is if it’s taken as a feature length argument against wannabe dictators, the ones who tell you that the exact opposite of what you’re seeing is the actual truth. However, if this is meant to be the way to cinematically tell us that the emperor has no clothes (literally in some scenes), then why not just make that the clear focus of the film instead of trying to cram in an entire life story? If you’re drawing a line to Trump, I can kind of get it, but let the actual prosecutors paint the lifelong picture of the man as a fraud and a blowhard and a dangerous chump. Ridley Scott didn’t need to do it. And if there was some other goal for this, then by God, what was it? Because while this is a very well made movie from a technical standpoint, something that Scott has never failed to deliver even with his worst entries, there’s no apparent point to it all, there’s no engaging plot, there’s no commitment from the actors, and when it’s all said and done, the best way to enjoy this sweeping historical epic is to just laugh at all the ways it fails.
What I’m saying is, Ridley Scott may have turned the life of Napoleon Bonaparte into his version of The Room.
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