There are many shades of how Ridley Scott approaches this interpretation of Napoleon Bonaparte. There are the expected moments of grandness, as when the elaborate wars of hundreds of soldiers soar across the screen. There are intriguing moments of subtle exploration of the French leader’s egotism and decay. But there are also scenes with absurdity, as when Napoleon ejaculates early on his wife and makes such ludicrous statements as “Destiny has brought this porkchop to me.” It’s a mess of elements that somehow finds some aspects worth exploring, even if only for brief glimpses in its lengthy running time.
Scott’s film attempts to downplay Napoleon Bonaparte, thanks to a surprisingly quiet performance by Joaquin Phoenix. He’s not portrayed as an ambitious upstart, a misunderstood monster, or a comical villain (at least not as a whole). The film tries to showcase how this man almost passively made his way through the motions of power. He witnesses the fall of France’s royalty and watches with wheels turning in his head about his next move. He continues his ascent with a nature free of most bravado, acting more like his fame and power were obligatory and calculative, contrary to his public perception of being all about his country.
As Napoleon sets his sights on conquering lands and overthrowing officials, he also takes note of Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), the lovely woman he would claim as his wife. Although Napoleon puts up the perception of being a man madly in life with Joséphine, he’s more interested in her for birthing an heir than being his one true love. This frustration grows to such a degree that even she can see the writing on the wall, asking how long a divorce will take when pregnancy seems to take longer. Their power-playing of dominance in the relationship has its moments, but it always feels like they’re holding back bigger feelings, making their more contentious exchanges feel far too understated. To the film’s credit, it creates a whiplash when Napoleon later forces her to read from a script while smacking her around his subordinates.
There are hills and valleys in Napoleon. The high points are undoubtedly the vast war sequences, staging everything from an exaggerated fight in Egypt to the brutal bloodbath of Waterloo. These scenes are exciting and staged and don’t skimp on the violence. There’s enough blood spilled, cannons exploding, and horses being blown to bits to shake those bored by the mundanity of the many closed-door moments. While the battles are enticing, the discussions of intrigue feel scattered in their progression. Aspects of Napoleon’s love life, politics, and egotism skate by far too quickly, especially with the subtitles that zoom by each event with an almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it timing to it all. It’s merciful that the film grants some moments of absurdity amid all its dreary passivity of the leader’s reign, willing to laugh at his bedroom antics and appalling table manners.
I suspect my future perceptions of this film will relate more to how I felt about Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. The theatrical cut of that historical epic was okay, but it felt uneven. After watching the extended director’s cut, the film felt more whole and far better. It’s fair to say similar thoughts of appreciation may rise when Scott releases his obligatory director’s cut that adds more depth and makes for a better film. Supposedly, Scott’s director’s cut is said to be over four hours compared to the theatrical cut’s 2.5 hours. It’s not a for-sure thing that the next cut will be better, but Scott’s track record for improvements is notable.
Napoleon wins a few battles amid its messy nature of searching around in its subtle darkness for something more with the historical figure with a massive ego. If not for the elaborately staged battles and some decent performances by Phoenix and Kirby, the film would’ve been a dreary historical drama that was less interested in the characters and more in the costumes. I hope the director’s cut also delivers on that boldness that sometimes seeps through. Ridley Scott was questioned for his historical accuracy with Napoleon, and in response to all that, he remarked, “Get a life.” This film could’ve used a lot more vigor, lest it coaxes the audience to sleep with its less-than-exciting moments of historical intrigue.