Perhaps it’s ultimately fitting that Ridley Scott’s epic Napoleon comes up small in the end.
The long road it took for a film about Napoleon Bonaparte to come to fruition is probably more entertaining than watching Ridley Scott’s handsomely directed but ultimately half-cooked biopic revolving around history’s greatest warmonger. Two major factors that have come to be expected about Scott-directed war epics are once again at play. For one, the craftsmanship on display during the battle sequences remains top-notch, and seeing the carnage play out is intense. Furthermore, the inevitable four-plus hour director’s cut we’ll see arrive on Apple TV+ in 2024 is more than likely the superior version, rendering the theatrical cut of the film to be a stopgap that competently but insufficiently passes the time during the holiday season.
The problems mostly lie in David Scarpa’s script. The screenwriter of Scott’s underrated All the Money in the World, Scarpa attempts to pack Napoleon’s entire life into a two-and-a-half-hour film, which is the usual kiss of death for films of this nature. In an attempt to cover Napoleon’s rise to power, starting with the Siege of Toulon in 1793, his perpetual desire for battle, leaving millions dead as a result, and his exile and death in the 1800s, Scarpa’s script is brought down by fleeting context in between these wars, which also leaves two ordinarily great performers stuck in the mud.
The film opens in the midst of the French Revolution, with Marie Antoinette being guillotined as Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix), merely an army officer, passively watches. The subsequent Siege of Toulon immediately clues us in to what Scott is interested in, and that’s the reckless disregard of human life that is war. Revolutionary leader Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim) entrusts the harbor assault to Napoleon, which leads to a successful overtaking of the city.
From there, Napoleon meets and marries Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), a prisoner during the Reign of Terror. When Napoleon is off waging battles, he communicates to Josephine via letters, expressing both his undying love and an imperative need for a son to take over for him when he is dead and gone. The most chemistry Napoleon and Josephine have is illustrated in these voiceover-heavy sequences. On screen together, you see how flat their characters really are. Josephine remains shrouded in mystery; a thankless mirror and vessel for Napoleon whose purpose is to reflect his pugnacious demeanor and keep his confidence high. Brought down by a script terribly uninterested in developing either, Josephine is rendered an enigma, left to pick up the pieces of their crumbling relationship that reaches a boiling point the more it becomes clear that she won’t be able to birth his child that will serve as his heir, eventually leading to the couple’s divorce.
Scott’s track record, be it Kingdom of Heaven or the more-recently released and richly conceived Last Duel, suggests that he’s not afraid to dig deeper into men whose defining characteristic was their pursuit of power. Sadly, Napoleon lacks tooth as a character study. Phoenix feels unusually tame, and at times, disengaged with the character he’s portraying. It’s as if he didn’t want to lean too heavily into the archetypal display of the “Napoleon Complex,” but in the process of trying to be a resonant version of the hot-headed emperor, couldn’t find another defining personality trait. The result is a bland portrayal of a man’s floundering confidence and persistent mommy issues. We already saw that great Joaquin Phoenix performance earlier this year.
Napoleon‘s best scene is the Battle of Austerlitz, which involves Napoleon stationing his French troops high into the hills, forcing the rival Austrians and Russians to traverse the icy tundra below. Napoleon orders his men not to fire their cannons at the soldiers, but at the ice below their feet, which leads to several soldiers and horses submerged beneath the icy floor for what had to be a horrid death. Like so many of the battles in Napoleon, Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski shoot the ensuing violence with complete control and clarity. It plays extremely well on the big screen.
That said, when the inevitable director’s cut is released next year, the biggest television in your home will probably suffice as it will also (hopefully) show a more elaborate portrayal of the titular commander in addition to sprawling action setpieces. I can’t get over the irony of how the works of a filmmaker known for making grandscale epics have essentially become more ideal to watch on streaming in their extended glory as opposed to their theatrically released counterparts.
NOTE: Napoleon is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Ben Miles, Ludivine Sagnier, Rupert Everett, Paul Rhys, and Catherine Walker. Directed by: Ridley Scott.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!