By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Few historical figures possess the notoriety, uniqueness, and importance of Napoleon Bonaparte. The prominent French military and political leader’s sprawling reign, history as a renowned war tactician, infamous physical appearance, psychological complex, and uncanny romantic life, amongst a variety of other interesting characteristics, mean the creation of a Napoleon biopic was not only understandable but inevitable. With Ridley Scott at the helm of such rich material and Academy Award winner Joaquin Phoenix taking on the role of the diminutive titular character, Napoleon harbors an array of elements that would seemingly converge upon an epic and meaningful theatrical experience. Unfortunately, however, that is not the case…
Napoleon is a big-budget, sprawling historical drama that follows the political rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and his passionate romantic relationship with his one true love Joséphine (played by Vanessa Kirby). To call theatrically adapting these stories ambitious is unreservedly an understatement given the complexities of Bonaparte’s life and the intricacies of the political context for his career. Ridley Scott, who reteams with his All the Money in the World scribe David Scarpa, undertook a gargantuan and commendable task here, but the result of their work is meandering, underwhelming, and confusing.
Napoleon aims yet largely fails to depict the life of its titular character from humble beginnings to Emperor of France in an approachable and compelling two-and-a-half hour film. Director Scott and screenwriter Scarpa throw the audience into the deep-end from the get-go by poorly establishing the film’s historical context. While successful historical biopics like Amadeus, Lawrence of Arabia, and Braveheart effectively set the stage for captivating films by concisely explaining the historical context of the film, Napoleon stumbles from the start and never really finds its footing. Having a fairly thorough understanding of Bonaparte’s life prior to watching the film not only elevates the film to an entirely other level but is also necessary to have anything more than a surface-level understanding of the film.
Perhaps more damningly is Napoleon’s failure to convey why Napoleon Bonaparte is such a renowned and important historical figure. Heading into Napoleon, at bare minimum, it was expected that the film would depict some sense of how compelling Bonaparte’s life was and his unimaginably mammoth effects on the trajectory of history. This, however, is not the case. Napoleon unfolds in a frustratingly conventional manner that fails to live up to the richness of its source material.
Part of this failure to portray Bonaparte’s importance can be attributed to the film’s confusing approach to the passage of time. A myriad of dates scroll across the screen at various times to establish some historical context, but, otherwise, it’s continually difficult to get a firm grasp on when events are occurring and how much time has passed from one event to another. This isn’t helped by the fact that the characters don’t visibly age and that so many important events are either glossed over, poorly depicted, or missing entirely.
Issues with storytelling are juxtaposed with a variety of accomplishments in Napoleon. The most glaring of which is Scott’s expert handling of the film’s battle sequences. It’s clear in watching Napoleon that the 85-year-old (!!!) director has not lost his touch for spectacle as the battle scenes on display here are nothing short of jaw-dropping. More broadly speaking, Scott, with the help of impressive cinematography and production design, crafts a film that feels and looks grand.
Surprising success is also found with the film’s unexpected sense of humor. Often coupled with the seriousness and gravity of the events being depicted is an odd-ball wit that yields several laugh-out-loud moments. At times, it’s unclear how intentional this humor really is, but, nonetheless, this adds something a little unique to the proceedings.
Performance wise, Napoleon is excellently anchored by leads Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby as the French leader and his dear wife Joséphine respectively. Phoenix hits the humorous notes well, but it’s Kirby who particularly excels in the film. Kirby, who previously played Princess Margaret in the historical drama The Crown, is fantastic as the woman Napoleon is entranced by. In this sense, Napoleon is a far better examination of a passionate and toxic romantic relationship than it is of a political leader and his career.
Napoleon is an admirably ambitious, but ultimately flawed film from director Ridley Scott. Disjointed and confusing plotting, in addition to a failure to convey the uniqueness and importance of Bonaparte, results in a frustratingly conventional biopic of one of history’s most interesting figures. The film, however, finds more success with its meticulously crafted battle sequences and an unexpected, odd sense of humor. With solid lead performances by Joaquin Phoenix and in particular Vanessa Kirby, Napoleon excels far more when its attention is on the passionate romantic relationship between Napoleon and Joséphine compared to when the focus is on dull and convoluted depictions of historical events.