There seems to be a movement by filmmakers of a certain vintage to reintroduce the classic Hollywood epic, historical biopics (always about powerful, flawed white men) that would’ve been huge celebrity affairs back in the day with scores of ink spilled about their production. Although audiences today have largely decided they don’t care about such movies, Ridley Scott, whose movies audiences have decided they don’t care about no matter what he does, has charged ahead with Napoleon. Both self-serious and ridiculous often at the same moment, it’s a film that turns the powerful French commander and war hero into a gibbering laughingstock who is only interesting for how ardently he can be portrayed by Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix.
Scott reunites with screenwriter David Scarpa, who delivered the atrocious All the Money in the World, for a biopic that at least doesn’t feel like a history lesson. Historical accuracy be damned, the film is purely meant for entertainment purposes and at least Scott can say he won on that front. Napoleon is never boring as it swings for the fences with scenes that are over-the-top brutal and uproariously silly. Phoenix, with his expressive face contorted like a demon’s mask, hams it up to play the diminutive Napoleon Bonaparte, an ambitious gunnery sergeant who has witnessed the execution of Marie Antoinette, and correctly gauged the mood of the people and how it can be wielded as a weapon. He uses this skill to work his way up the ranks into a position of power, showing exemplary tactical ability on the battlefield.
Scott doesn’t waste time throwing us into the first major conflict, the battle of Toulon. And predictably, Scott excels in these massive, well-choreographed set pieces. Right from the beginning you’re struck by the urgency of it all, as Napoleon’s horse takes a cannonball square on that nearly ends his rise to prominence right then and there. There’s an intimate familiarity that Scott shows in the savagery of war; each one growing in intensity, bloodshed, scale, and the outlandishness of Napoleon’s accomplishments. From firing cannonballs at Egyptian pyramids to trapping an entire enemy force under a sheet of ice, Napoleon is made to look more like a comic book villain than an actual person.
We’re expected to see more of the man in the scenes in between, as the film largely deals with Napoleon’s obsession with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), a widow and rebellious aristocrat known for her promiscuity. She practically tells him she’ll be unfaithful as soon as she catches his eye, and yet he cannot help himself. Predictably, she plays Napoleon like a fiddle, the jealous commander and husband writing her letters while off at war, meanwhile she’s at home taking on new lovers. And yet, they are both survivors in a way, and this bonds them throughout their tumultuous relationship. It’s a shame that we don’t see more of the film from her perspective, as was initially promised. Napoleon is far more interesting exploring how they deal together with an ever-changing world, one in which they have increasing power and influence, but also an increase in enemies seeking to destroy them.
The best battles aren’t on a blood-soaked field of battle, but in the oft-hilarious confrontations between Napoleon and Josephine. During one particularly testy meal, she calls her husband “fat”, which is true as he bursts at his outfit’s seams while stuffing his face. He responds readily with “I enjoy my meals. Destiny has brought me to this lamb chop” and it’s as much of a mic drop as the time period could possibly allow. Phoenix has a grip on the kind of movie he’s in. He shifts easily between Napoleon’s commanding tone to the vulnerable, awkward simp he often was when in Josephine’s presence. For Kirby, this is more evidence that she’s one of the best actresses working today, trading with Phoenix expertly in their fiery opening engagements. But she’s even better later on, as Josephine’s power fades and she’s forced to stand by and watch the world move on from the sidelines, without being able to move on from it herself.
But is Napoleon meant to be a historical satire? It’s hard to tell, because there’s definitely some admiration for Napoleon Bonparte as a war hero, leader, and political strategiest who knew how to manuever his way to the top. But his ego is as big as all of France, and when he gets outplayed it’s done in such a comical manner as to make him look like a clown in a big Cap’n Crunch hat. This includes his ultimate defeat at Waterloo, which I hope isn’t a spoiler and if it is you should probably have studied more in school.
Like Scott has done with far too many of his films lately, the director is trying to have it every which way and accomplishing little. Napoleon is not a historical biography to be respected, nor does it have the dark comic wit to be particularly edgy. With only a few ludicrous Phoenix lines of dialogue to hang its hat on, this is a film that will almost certainly be overlooked this awards season, and forgotten by the time Scott trots out whatever his next project will be.
Napoleon opens in theaters on November 22nd.