‘Napoleon’ Review

Historical epics and biopics are rapidly becoming a dying art form. There’s only so often one can witness the same historical events repetitively performed with little insight into what makes the historical figures tick. If you want to make a film of this size and scope, you have to give us a reason to care, be it modern insight (see: Kingdom of Heaven) or to demonstrate how f*cking weird history really is (see: The Favourite). Ridley Scott has attempted to craft his own take on the life of that famous Frenchman – a feat that has arguably killed two separate directors throughout history. He comes close to success, thanks to some strong directing and a surprising angle; but ultimately he falls into the same traps as so many directors to come before.

Napoleon follows the journey of Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) on his journey from an ordinary army officer to one of the most elite commanders and rulers in history. After establishing himself during the Siege of Toulon as a strong, decisive general, Bonaparte soon takes advantage of the chaotic power vacuum of the Reign of Terror to establish himself as Emperor of France. As he begins to expand his lands against the forces of the elitist royalties of Russia, Austria, and Britain, Napoleon also must balance his complicated relationship with his beloved wife Josephine (Vanessa Kirby).

Like so many failed historical epics to come before, Napoleon puts so much effort into the retelling of events that it forgets to intrigue audiences with the power of why. As a leader, Scott and co. provide little insight into what is happening and why. One minute, there’s a major battle, then Napoleon becomes a politician, then he’s at war with…someone, for…reasons, and then the cycle repeats. The battles are immaculately staged – the retelling of the Battle of Austerlitz is spellbinding, as is the graphic depiction of the Siege of Toulon. Yet these merely feel like setpieces, demonstrations of what Scott can accomplish as a director and not a part of an interwoven story.

The film lacks any psychological or historical nuance. It simply bounces from historical event to historical event, trying to check the boxes that a Napoleon biopic should conceivably contain. It is a discouraging sign when 50% of the film’s facts and figures must be conveyed via footnotes. It’s a sign that Scott has tried to pack too much into the 2½ hour film, and lacks either the runtime or the passion to convey the complexity of this story and material. Napoleon is a fascinating, complicated figure with as many atrocities as he has moral victories (much of his campaign focused on religious freedom and class equality). Yet you’d never know it from this film. Hell, by the time we reach Waterloo, it is impossible to decipher Napoleon’s motivations, why the battle is important, or what specifically went wrong.

Which is a terrible shame, as the film’s best moments come when it offers up the half-explored angle that Napoleon was a little sex weirdo. So many films go wrong trying to explain the logic behind famous historical figures or historical monsters in stately, respectable terms or justifications. It is far more interesting to explore a figure as grandiose as the Emperor of France in more honest terms: he was a loser who’d been rejected and just wanted to earn respect and get f*cked. Phoenix thrives playing this role, hearkening back to his unhinged performance in The Master. He alternates between dignified genius and insane little f*ck pig with complete ease, and it’s easily a funnier performance than his work in Joker.

Indeed, the best moments of the film are not Napoleon issuing steely-eyed resolve as a fierce, intelligent commander. It’s the way the film explores his reaction to power that’s fascinating. For all his brilliance, all his success, and all his wealth, Napoleon is just a horny little puppy that never got the attention of the girls when he’s younger, and would gladly give up his kingdom to have the worst-looking sex with his wife. I cannot tell you what a relief it was to learn that this film’s take on “big important person” boiled down to “he was a cuck.” I want my historical figures to throw temper tantrums when they don’t have sex, or withhold dessert from generals who give them bad news, or scream at rival diplomats “You think you’re so great because you have boats!”

Napoleon, like Scott’s controversially messy 2021 effort The Last Duel, is at its best when exploring how ridiculously nasty the so-called “Enlightened era” truly was. I mean, the film opens on Marie Antoinette’s execution (which, admittedly, one of the film’s weakest aspects is its pro-Royalist leanings) before segueing into the Reign of Terror and Robespierre’s weaselly leadership. Most of Napoleon’s foreign affairs troubles come from the stupidity and snobbery of spoiled, inbred fops. And in one of the film’s finest moments of condemnation, Scott shows us an 18th-century fertility test: having sex with an 18-year-old and seeing if she gets pregnant. Sadly, like The Last Duel, this only makes up a fraction of the film’s runtime, yet the film is at its best in these moments.

There’s not really much to say about the other actors in this film, because it mostly consists of Phoenix’s towering performance and then thousands of cannon fodder extras. Kirby has the most to do as Napoleon’s wife Josephine, and she gives the role her all, but it is far too underwritten to stand out. So instead, I want to praise two minor supporting characters who best understood what this film could and should be. The first is Sam Traughton, who perfectly embodies the pathetic nature of the infamous Maximilien Robespierre. The second is Paul Rhys, fresh off a similar role in Saltburn, playing the perfect kiss-ass messenger-turned-traitor Talleyrand. What can I say? I love a good weasel in a film.

Napoleon is a noble mess, a film that had so much potential and squandered it away. Perhaps that is the fitting end to Napoleon’s story – after all, that’s how his reign came to an end. But as a history lover and a film lover, there’s too much left to be desired. I don’t need a film to be historically accurate or perfect, by any means. But it’s got to do something: entertain, educate, inspire, and so on. Scott’s film shows many flashes of brilliance. But it’s hard not to imagine the film in, say, Yorgos Lanthimos’ hands – a filmmaker who enjoys exploring history’s horny and violent nastiness. Instead, we’re teased with a “what if,” showing us what a better film could look like, yet never fully delivering.

B-

Napoleon is now playing in theaters nationwide; it will premiere on Apple TV in the near future

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