MOVIE REVIEW – For such a famous historical figure, Napoleon has made only a fleeting appearance on film since Abel Gance’s 1927 silent movie. Stanley Kubrick had grand plans for a Napoleon epic, but it was never made. Steven Spielberg is now trying to revive those plans in the form of a series. More of a historical icon than a real character, Napoleon and his two-cornered hat usually only appear in adventure films and science fiction for time-traveling teenagers, such as Time Bandits or the hilarious adventures of Bill and Ted.
Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is a two-hour, 38-minute feature-length biopic that offers a historical spectacle of bloody European battles and massive military maneuvers.
Scott did not bow down to Napoleon, to put it mildly
But let us not confuse Napoleon with an ordinary historical epic. From the beginning of the movie, you get the sense that this may not be an epic glorification of history’s legendary warlords and statesmen, especially Bonaparte, who leads a 24-year siege against the British troops controlling the port city of Toulon. When Napoleon, then a major, advances during the historic battle in question, he is visibly terrified, even panting as he charges. He looks more like Phoenix’s angst-ridden protagonist in What We Fear than the man who would become Emperor of France. Instead of storming the gates, Napoleon staggers frantically toward them.
And for the rest of Scott’s movie and Phoenix’s riveting performance, Napoleon’s actions will never be more complicated. He seizes power with ease. His 1799 coup against the French Directory is a farce in disguise. He throws his armies around the continent without the slightest concern. Prone to petulant tantrums, he shouts at the British, “You think you’re so great because you have ships!”
“Napoleon” is more the theory of the not-so-great man of history. This Napoleon is neither exceptional nor a great man. (I mean, except that he was short.) He is a boyishly impulsive, easily provoked, egotistical to the extreme who runs across Europe as a general, leaving behind bloody battlefields and mountains of dead soldiers. When he learns over lunch during a campaign in Egypt that his wife Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) is having an affair in Paris, he curtly replies to the messenger, “No dessert for you.
Napoleon is not always good, but the battle scenes are breathtaking
Unfortunately, Scott’s movie is far from perfect, neither as a faithful work of history nor as fiction… Phoenix’s characterization sometimes has more in common with some of his earlier portrayals of melancholic and more or less psychopathic characters (The Master, The Joker) than with the factual record of Napoleon. One would think that a quality like ambition would be prominent in Napoleon’s portrayal. He was a notorious workaholic, meticulously organized, and an energetic intellectual – little of which is present here, which is problematic not only because it does not fit with what we know of Napoleon from the history books, but also because it makes it less clear how he was able to achieve such power.
But that is part of the point of “Napoleon,” which certainly has some contemporary resonance. There are, of course, many characters in the movie who help him for their own sake (the supporting cast includes Paul Rhys as the scheming diplomat Talleyrand), as the movie moves through such important events as the fall of Robespierre, the coup of 1799, Napoleon’s investiture as emperor in 1804, and the triumph at the Battle of Austerlitz. The latter is Scott’s finest battle scene in the movie, ending with the Russian troops fleeing across a frozen lake as a bombardment of cannon fire plunges them into an icy grave. This is the scene that makes this movie a must-see for any fan of war or history. It’s a shame that we only get to see three of these epic battle scenes in the movie, and the first one is quite short.
Behind every historical celebrity there was a woman – a bit too much here…
In David Scarpa’s screenplay, however, Napoleon is not a series of battles, but the story is carried through to the famous final battle, which we know from history books took place at Waterloo. (In this scene, Rupert Everett’s sarcastic Duke of Wellington recounts the military tactics.) In fact, it is the relationship between Napoleon and Josephine that is the main thread, and unfortunately (like Napoleon) the movie’s greatest weakness.
When he first sees her at a crowded party, he stares at her with a haunted expression. Of course, any of the men would be like that. Kirby is sexier and more voluptuous than ever, dazzling men with her enormous cleavage as the mighty Josephine and, of course, the phoenix-like Napoleon, with whom she rivals for Napoleon’s most powerful presence. She has complete control over Napoleon, who turns out to be as wild in the bedroom as he is in the company. When he returns from Egypt, enraged by the well-known rumors of her infidelity, they have a long argument that ends with her turning the tables on him. “Without me, you are nothing,” she repeats to him, and he cringes happily. Although this scene is really very good, there is too much nagging between Napoleon and Josephine and it overpowers the movie.
Josephine is omnipresent for a long time – he keeps writing her letters from the battlefield, which she tells us about – but Napoleon never finds a balance between their life together and the military exploits he has to cut. Scott is expected to release a four-hour director’s cut on Apple TV+ after the film’s theatrical release, perhaps offering a more calibrated version that will hopefully have less of the private drama, which at times veers into soap opera territory, and more of the battle scenes or politics.
A movie which is provocative and exciting, but far from being flawless
The 85-year-old Scott – himself a symbol of endless ambition – has made a movie that, like his previous film, The Last Duel, is a revealing and provocative work about the overused and destructive power of men. Scott has made many macho, extravagant epics – including Gladiator, in which Oscar-nominated Phoenix played the Roman emperor Commodus. But even if Napoleon doesn’t add up, the movie is somehow irresistibly exciting – both visually and in its stark degradation of its protagonist. Compared to his last two historical films, it is clearly better than The House of Gucci, but obviously inferior to The Last Duel, so it is somewhere in between.
-Gergely Herpai (BadSector)-