Napoleon isn’t the historical epic and biopic that everyone might be expecting, but those familiar with the cheekier side of director Ridley Scott will see this as a playful return to form of sorts. Simultaneously captivating, tonally messy, overlong, and endearingly playful, Napoleon is all over the place, but never boring for a second. Its depiction of one of history’s greatest madmen and walking punchlines doesn’t so much traverse a tightrope as much as it stumbles around drunkenly shouting at people. And that’s kind of the point Scott is going for with Napoleon, a portrait of an egotistical social climber who thinks they’re destined for greatness, but doesn’t realize they’re the architect of their own slow demise.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Napoleon Bonaparte in Scott’s slow burning depiction of the famed military leader and dictator’s rise to power and swifter fall from grace. At the start of the film, Napoleon is nothing more than a Brigadier General trying his best to be noticed and embraced by those overthrowing Marie Antionette at the end of the French Revolution. While Napoleon accrues just as many enemies as he does friends, it’s hard to argue with his results at first. Slowly, Bonaparte and his wife, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), rise to the ranks of Emperors, and try, unsuccessfully to start a family. Napoleon’s inability to sire an heir of any sort leads not only to a fractured marriage to the one person he ever truly loved (but who he still treated like dirt to forward his own goals), but also to ill fated military missions that would cost tens of thousands of lives for almost no tangible gains whatsoever.
That’s the short and not particularly nuanced version of Bonaparte’s story, and while there will be many up in arms about the film’s historical inaccuracies and occasional vagueness, that’s where Scott finds the meat of his story. Napoleon isn’t about the man himself, but rather the person that this character sees within their own mind. It’s not playing the infamy of Napoleon, but the legend that Bonaparte sees within his own mind, and having fun at the man’s expense. Napoleon isn’t a film that wants to say “here was a man with a few good ideas, but was a bad person,” but rather depicts him as an occasionally brilliant tactician who continually made bad, self serving choices, and didn’t have a shred of self awareness.
In the script courtesy of David Scarpa (The Last Castle, All the Money in the World), Bonaparte’s successes are depicted as a combination of shrewd politicking and a whole bunch of luck, not the hard earned right to greatness Napoleon thought he was entitled to. He thinks he’s France’s answer to the likes of Caesar and Alexander, and Scott goes to prove that the man was half right insomuch as they were tyrants also undone by their own hubris, who weren’t particularly beloved, either. As menacing, ruthless, and uncaring as Bonaparte appears, he also has the ability to seem like a cartoonish, clueless, petulant brat.
As such, Scott has a lot of fun with this character, leaning into the naturally arising, but unquestionably bleak humour at the heart of Scarpa’s script. The parallels between Bonaparte and the way other world leaders conduct themselves in modern times is unavoidable, so Scott is only willing to take Napoleon seriously to a finite point. To take Napoleon’s war crimes and follies seriously would further glorify someone who doesn’t deserve such status, and because that’s precisely what Bonaparte would’ve wanted. He shed the blood of thousands for his fledgling empire and thought nothing of it. As such, Scott sets out to make many of Napoleon’s exploits as outlandish and ridiculous as possible (particularly his 1798 “liberation” of Egypt), and reduces his angry outbursts into sometimes gut busting jokes (including one of the funniest moments in any film this year when the general ridicules an English military leader with a barb he thinks is cutting, but only makes him look like a child).
The humour and desire to rip apart the mythology surrounding Napoleon is much appreciated, but it also causes a disconnect to the rest of the film, which is mounted as a rather standard wartime epic. Ridley Scott is an accomplished master when it comes to depicting large scale battle sequences, but the amount of time devoted to them in Napoleon borders on exhausting, especially the ones where historically minded viewers already know the outcomes. This might be in a bid to make something this strange appeal more to mainstream audiences, but they slows things down considerably. All of this spectacle feels at odds with what Scott wants to say about rulers and world leaders cut from Napoleon’s similar cloth. By the time Scott and Scarpa arrive at their overlong coda focusing on Napoleon’s abdication and exile, everything of interest has run its course, and the film ends up repeating its same points and subtextual parallels to modern politics. (If it wasn’t clear earlier that Napoleon is a Trump surrogate, the viewer will be absolutely aware of it by the latter stages of the film.)
But as tiresome as Napoleon gets, Scott’s film is never boring or ugly to behold. The period details are exceptional, the gorgeous cinematography is appropriately smokey, and even at its most chaotic, Scott’s team is incapable of putting forward a subpar image. Even at its ugliest and basest, Scott’s depiction of somewhat lucky, unearned regality has a stateliness that befits the psychological mindset of a narcissistic main character. Napoleon is an exceptionally handsome film about an exceptionally ugly man.
And as that ugly man, Phoenix gives one of his best and most off kilter performances. Often pausing before he speaks in a bid to assert intellectual superiority over anyone across from him, Phoenix depicts Napoleon as someone who has misplaced their sense of tact, but can occasionally tap into mental deposits of devilish brilliance. Like the film built around it, Phoenix’s performance sometimes lurches between comedic and deadly serious, but that dichotomy is one that he plays so well as an actor and has factored into almost all of his most noteworthy and acclaimed roles. No one can play “smart but lacking in self-awareness” quite like Phoenix, and he’s matched quite nicely by Kirby as his sometimes wandering wife. Their relationship is a fascinatingly volatile one; frosty, but never cold, and sometimes showing flashes of genuine love amid all the contempt Napoleon shows for everyone and everything around him.
Napoleon is a hard film to nail down, but instead of seeing that as a detriment, I find that stickiness its most endearing and engaging trait. Scott’s duelling visions for what this film should be never coalesce into a formidable whole, but it’s also different and taking chances that less established filmmakers wouldn’t dare to try on a similar level. It’s mature and composed, but also gleefully puerile and debased whenever it feels like poking fun at Napoleon. It’s like watching a post-modern take on Barry Lyndon, only Barry is a power hungry emperor, and he keeps a vision board that he won’t shut up about. (Which is a somewhat appropriate point of comparison, I guess, when one considers Barry Lyndon was originally birthed from Stanley Kubrick’s own famously unfulfilled desire to make a film about Napoleon.) Those who want rigorous, rigid historical accuracy would be advised to look elsewhere, but for anyone wishing to see a veteran filmmaker doing whatever they feel like on the biggest canvas possible, Napoleon is a prime piece of entertainment.
Napoleon opens in theatres everywhere on Wednesday, November 22, 2023.
Join our list
Subscribe to our mailing list and get weekly updates on our latest contests, interviews, and reviews.