Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the most written about people in history. His military tactics are studied to this day and his effect on world affairs (the Napoleonic code and the Napoleonic complex, anyone?) remain.
He has long been a figure of fascination for filmmakers, as well. Movies abound about the French general and emperor. It feels like it’s been a while, however, since he got his last treatment on the big screen. To my knowledge, Napoleon, movie-wise, was last depicted in the 1989 slacker comedy Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Ridley Scott takes a more serious pass at Napoleon in 2023, set for a Thanksgiving release. It would be difficult to make a movie about Napoleon that is not epic or sweeping or grand, and Scott’s Napoleon does not fail in its attempt to match these characterizations. High budget and vast though it is, this version of Napoleon’s conquests—militaristic and romantic—is very paint by the numbers.
The best sequences, from a visual standpoint, are the battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo, but nothing else stands out. Indeed, Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Napoleon, appears intimidated by the role. He speaks haltingly and rarely beyond one or two word sentences. Is this how the real Napoleon spoke? I don’t know, but if that’s the case it’s not cinematic and not especially compelling to hear. There is no memorable stamp placed on Napoleon by Phoenix the way Nigel Hawthorne did with King George III in The Madness of King George or Daniel Day Lewis did with Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln.
Phoenix is one of our time’s most interesting actors. His performances in Joker, Walk the Line, and The Master are the kinds that stay with you as a viewer, perhaps because they were oddballs or addicts. In Napoleon, when he has to take on the weight of history and embellishment would be inappropriate, he appears unable to find something to work with. So he plays Napoleon charmless, and it’s too obvious.
In contrast to the straight man is Vanessa Kirby, who takes on the role of Napoleon’s amour and bete noire—the famed Josephine. It’s not that Kirby is the superior thespian, but her character is less subject to fact checking, so she is free to be more expressive.
Kirby’s performance notwithstanding, the Napoleon-Josephine relationship in Napoleon doesn’t exactly inspire. It plays like a toned down 9 ½ Weeks (or Last Tango in Paris if you want to keep it continental) with face powder and bicorne hats. And then it ends abruptly.
Abruptly is the mot juste for Napoleon, for every sequence feels as if it is hustling us from one bullet point to the next, heading towards what most students of history know is Napoleon’s exile on the island of St. Helena.
Non-students of history won’t quibble with inaccuracies, but, as mentioned, the Battle of Austerlitz is one of the more engaging episodes in the film. Yet here Scott appears to abandon history for homage, channeling his inner Sergei Eisenstein.
Eisenstein, the celebrated Russian film director, composed one of the most memorable battle scenes in film history in Alexander Nevsky—where Russian armies fight Teutonic forces. As the battle rages, the Teutonic cavalry is pushed onto a great lake where the ice breaks and the knights drown.
Though something similar may have happened at Austerlitz, it was not the centerpiece of the battle. In Napoleon, Scott makes it seem so, which left me wondering if the director wanted to capture history or indulge his craft.
In all the battle scenes, Napoleon relies heavily on CGI. This should not come as a surprise, but Scott didn’t need any computer graphics for Black Hawk Down’s entirely engrossing fights. Perhaps there were some effects used for Gladiator, but Napoleon’s utter reliance on them draws too much of the viewer’s attention to the crutch.
As detailed, Ridley Scott is not a stranger to biopics or historic films. In fact, the picture that put him on the map as a director was titled The Duellists. This was also a Napoleonic era movie, about two men who, over the course of decades, meet periodically to wage a blood feud. It worked not only because it was smaller in scope, but also because the characters were, if not entirely fictional, only loosely based on true men. Thus, Scott didn’t have to be tethered to anything actual other than atmosphere and costume. In Napoleon, he gets the garb right but all else is cumbersome.
And even if Scott is comfortable with historic subjects, it is not his strongest genre. I would not argue his best films in any other category are on par with Alien and Blade Runner.
Napoleon Bonaparte was due a good rendering in the cinema, but this movie fails to live up to his giant (diminutive) stature.
Blast Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars