Ridley Scott’s latest historical epic, Napoleon, begins with one of the most well-known executions in French history, that of Marie Antoinette. As she walks through the crowd of giddy, prideful bystanders, a young Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) looks on. Scott introduces Napoleon as a man who “seeks a promotion” at the dawn of the French Revolution. Scott’s language is apt here as it not only acquaints us with Napoleon’s ambition but also reduces him to an average man the audience knows all too well. His own hubris is stronger than his ineptitude, a prevalent trait in famous and everyday, power-hungry men. It’s unfortunate, then, that Napoleon doesn’t expand on this timely idea of mythologizing history’s great men and is also completely disinterested in saying anything noteworthy about the controversial historical figure.
The film spans twenty-six incredibly violent and influential years, beginning with the French Revolution in 1789 and ending with Napoleon’s exile to St. Helena in 1815. Despite its meaty 157-minute runtime, Napoleon tries to cover too much ground, making it difficult to settle into any historical events presented. As soon as it finds the rhythm of a particular scene or moment of dialogue between characters, the story will abruptly move to the next key date in Napoleon’s life, truncating some of the film’s most riveting scenes. Its reach feels too broad in scope while also dragging on into cumbersome territory. As Napoleon navigates the intense and ever-changing political landscape of 18th-century France in the film’s first section, it’s difficult to understand why and how he gained the power to be promoted to Brigadier General, defeat a royalist insurrection, or seize Egypt. There is a much richer story that explores the dark and complicated history of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s place in that, but this film’s politics are surface-level and informational, and it neglects to dig any deeper.
The script, penned by David Scarpa (All the Money in the World), can’t quite decide if it’s a drama, a comedy (there are at least two height-related jokes), or a farce. The film’s more straightforward, serious moments capturing Napoleon’s cruelty that operate as a thin allegory for evergreen male toxicity were addressed much more adroitly in Scott’s last historical epic, The Last Duel. The seriousness combined with the comedic dialogue sometimes causes the film to venture into camp territory. The film’s laugh-out-loud, comedic moments are a sight to behold, though. If only we could know whether or not the real-life Napoleon said, “Destiny brought me this lamb chop,” or, “You think you’re so great because you have boats!” These hilarious lines of dialogue are brought to life by Joaquin Phoenix’s undersung gift for comedy. Phoenix is no stranger to playing cuckolded, humiliated men (The Master, Beau Is Afraid), and he expands on that with his impeccable comedic timing. In his hands, Napoleon isn’t the Wikipedia page that the structure of the film might lead you to believe. Instead, he chooses to play this iconic figure as one of history’s greatest embarrassments. Phoenix’s Napoleon is bored to the point of being a convincing narcoleptic and doesn’t seem to want to lead his troops into battle for any reason other than to say he was victorious. He even covers his ears every time he hears gunfire or the firing of a cannon. He led some of history’s greatest battles, but was he actually good at his job? Phoenix interrogates the meaning of that consistently throughout, making for a unique, specific depiction of a larger-than-life persona.
After the 1794 execution of Jacobin leader Robespierre, we’re introduced to Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), one of the 41,500 prisoners released at the end of the Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s eventual wife. Joséphine meets Napoleon when she’s playing cards by candlelight at the grand, Barry Lyndon-like Survivor’s Ball. There is absolutely no romance to their meet-cute, as Joséphine asks him if he was staring at her. Without any game whatsoever, Napoleon replies, “I was staring at you. At your face.” It’s one of the film’s stilted, comical moments that adds humor but doesn’t make much sense for the characters, given their actions that follow. Joséphine is a beautiful, savvy woman who perplexingly comes to love Napoleon, even though he treats her poorly and frequently ridicules her for her lack of power, extramarital affairs, and inability to produce an heir. She holds some power over him, though, as he keeps returning to her, even after they’ve divorced. This power is not convincing, even as Scott and Scarpa try to incorporate a slight shift in her character in an early scene, providing glimpses of a Lady Macbeth-inspired eventual Empress. Does Joséphine love him for his power? Why is her hold over him so deep? It’s unclear, and it doesn’t seem to matter in the world of the movie, either. Often, Napoleon’s letters to Joséphine don’t demonstrate his love for her but exist to offer expository guideposts to orient us on his latest wartime travels and accomplishments. As the film progressed, I wanted to spend more time with Joséphine, not just because her scenes were always inexplicably set to Dario Marianelli’s beautiful track, “Dawn” from Pride and Prejudice. She’s a character directly in Kirby’s wheelhouse as a performer, so it’s a shame that the film doesn’t allow the glimmers of her deeper characterization to shine through more brightly. Even her death from diphtheria is practically mentioned in passing and seems included simply for Napoleon to react when he returns from exile. Critical moments in the film may suggest that Joséphine was the most important person in Napoleon’s life, but that’s never thoughtfully illustrated.
Napoleon is perhaps most notably remembered as a savvy, destructive conqueror, and the film’s battle sequences are expertly choreographed. Scott is a master of designing worlds (Blade Runner), building and relieving tension (Alien), and crafting thrilling battle set pieces (Gladiator); the recreations of some of Napoleon’s most brutal conquests are the film’s greatest strength. From the 1793 Siege of Toulon to The Battle of Austerlitz, Scott plays in different climates, utilizing new war tactics to showcase the shifting styles of warfare in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Battle of Austerlitz finds Napoleon and the French troops firing cannon balls onto the ice in a crushing, bloody trap for the Russian and Austrian armies. This battle, which occurs about two hours into the film, is also notably the first time when cinematographer Darius Wolski’s gray-hued photography adds to the feeling and mood, as it nicely matches the frigid temperatures and wartime desperation. The set piece depicting The Battle of Waterloo stands out as one of the most ambitious in Scott’s career, with dynamic camerawork capturing one of history’s deadliest battles that ended the Napoleonic Wars. While these sequences are relentlessly violent and Scott’s metier, no doubt, the lack of care for the characters, unfortunately, makes these action set pieces pale in comparison to those in some of Scott’s earlier films. Thousands of troops have been killed, and numerous wars have been waged, but no new information about the titular character is presented. The Napoleon at the end of the film is effectively the same man introduced at the beginning.
When Napoleon’s coronation occurs, he’s presented with two crowns: a gold laurel wreath to symbolize the Roman Empire and a more traditional crown worn by the previous French Kings. Napoleon insists on wearing the laurels and raising the second crown above his head himself, defying tradition. Even though it played somewhat comedically in the film, moments like this one highlight the cocky vanity and ambition associated with men at the highest levels of power and those just looking for a promotion. Unfortunately, Scott can’t decide which version of Napoleon’s story he wants to tell: a classical highlight reel biopic, a comedic portrait of a man crushed by his own desires, or an allegory for performative patriotism in our current political climate. Napoleon’s return to France and rallying of his supporters after his exile to Elba brought to mind another cruel and destructive leader who, similarly, would say, “We’re winning,” when a loss was clearly imminent. That’s a thought-provoking kernel that the film seems only lightly interested in tackling. Like his previous epics (notably, Kingdom of Heaven), perhaps Scott’s teased four-hour director’s cut will provide the answers his theatrical cut sadly ignores.
Napoleon will first be released exclusively in theaters worldwide, in partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment, on Wednesday, November 22, before streaming globally on Apple TV+.