Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is a historical epic with well-staged, battle scenes and a one-note title character who just isn’t very interesting. Napoleon Bonaparte is played by Joaquin Phoenix as an angry, insecure, power-hungry bully, who lives to prove his greatness through conquest. He takes France, he wins many battles and, most importantly, he acquires the love of Josephine. All the while, deep down, he fears he is nothing without his accomplishments. If he doesn’t have the people of France worshipping him, he is a pathetic nobody.
Scott doesn’t really explore his subject psychologically. He establishes those traits and then sits back to watch Napoleon’s life take its course. He gains glory, he imposes his will, he struggles with love, he falls from grace. There are moments that seem to be going for intentional humor, when Napoleon’s petulance or childlike inadequacy rear their heads. However, the character has no depth, no nuance. Scott and writer David Scarpa had a picture of this man, but fail to bring it to the screen in a way that is engaging or entertaining. The movie around him is exciting. He is an anchor dragging it down.
The story begins in 1792, with Napoleon already earning respect from his superior officers for his strategic genius on the battlefield. It doesn’t take long for him to rise up the ranks, though what he truly desires is the devotion of Josephine. The rest of this bounces between his triumphs and his dramatic relationship with his wife.
Napoleon (a drawn-out 149 minutes, minus the end credits) is at its best when it shows his brilliance at work. The scenes of war, with Napoleon either confidently calling the shots from the back or actually getting into the action himself, are fascinating. They have genuine stakes to them, for him and all of France. Scott doesn’t focus on spectacle. He focuses on the personal consequences of success or failure. There are some bloody moments, but that’s the nature of war. Scott wants us to experience what this man experienced, which is much more cerebral. It is a cool approach I wish had been extended to his personal life.
Instead, Napoleon, so amazing when giving speeches to his troops, is socially inept, immature, temperamental and kind of pitiful overall. He feels entitled to Josephine, due to how great he is, yet has no idea how to care for her emotionally. She loves him, despite how he treats her. Does she really? Or does she love the life being with him grants her? The screenplay seems to act like it’s the former, though it spends such little time developing her that it’s hard to tell. Vanessa Kirby does what she can, but she was given nothing to play with. She’s a prop used to display the juxtaposition between the legendary leader and the sad man who doesn’t understand himself.
There is an implication that Napoleon is the way he is because of his mother. However, she is barely in the movie, so it is impossible to get a legitimate read on that. Scott does such a good job with large-scale scenes. Besides the battles, the scenes of France’s leaders bickering as they posture for control of the country could definitely have some satirical bite. The shots of Napoleon out in his uniform, looking like a kid forced to dress-up by his parents, could have contained interesting commentary.
Sadly, Scott and Scarpa lose track of what they are trying to say by presenting Napoleon this way. There is no intimacy here. Okay, Napoleon did everything he did for the attention of a woman. What does that say about France? Or world history? Or our current society? Or even Napoleon and Josephine themselves? Napoleon doesn’t say. For all of its strengths, ultimately, it is bloated, empty and dull.
2¾ out of 5
Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte
Vanessa Kirby as Josephine Bonaparte
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by David Scarpa