Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Napoleon (2023) dir. Ridley Scott

Napoleon not so complex.


Napoleon (JOAQUIN PHOENIX, center) looks onto the battlefield in Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures theatrical release of NAPOLEON. Photo by: Aidan Monaghan

Ridley Scott is perhaps one of the great journeyman filmmakers of our time. It’s probably not an exaggeration to speculate that he’s been watched by nearly every American with a healthy interest in film, even those unfamiliar with him by name; there are likely those who have seen Alien, Thelma and Louise, Black Hawk Down, and The Martian without having the faintest clue that they were all directed by the same person. It isn’t that Scott lacks a personal style, so much as that his style is adaptable to pretty much every modern idiom of popular film. You might not like everything he’s ever done, but I’d wager most people can at least find something in his filmography they can enjoy.

Scott’s latest, Napoleon, appears to be a collaboration between Ridley Scott, the visionary behind the massively popular peplum theatrics of Gladiator, and Ridley Scott, the wry mind behind the fabulously bitchy tabloid biopic House of Gucci. A Scott telling of the story of Napoleon– easily one of the most colorful figures in the history of the western world– promises something at once sweeping and trashy, a handsome epic unafraid to dally on the sordid details. Napoleon is that, but only fitfully; unfortunately, it also falls into the trap of trying to be definitive, and allows itself to get bogged down in the details. What’s worse, in a miscalculation worthy of the man behind Waterloo, its greatest selling point– the casting of its leading man– turns out to be its biggest shortcoming.

Synopsizing the plot of Napoleon is fairly easy: it is the story of Napoleon Bonaparte, and very little more or less. Joaquin Phoenix plays the title role, from his beginnings as a lowly but ambitious Corsican lieutenant to his self-anointment as Emperor of France. Key to Napoleon’s journey is his relationship with his wife Josephine, played by Vanessa Kirby, which is depicted as an obsession nearly on par with his thirst for power. Along the way, we hit all the familiar bullet points: the battles, the conquests, the betrayals, and, most of all, the hubris which made him arguably the most powerful man in Europe– until, of course, his swift and inevitable downfall.

Vanessa Kirby stars as Empress Josephine in Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures theatrical release of NAPOLEON. Photo by: Aidan Monaghan

Napoleon is best when it’s at its pulpiest. In the opening sequence, the severed head of Marie Antoinette is yanked from its guillotine basket and waved around for the crowd like a prop from a Fulci film. A few scenes later, Napoleon’s horse is hit by a cannonball and explodes in a glorious mass of CGI blood and entrails (to be clear, when I say “hit,” I mean “fucking obliterated”). These moments set the tone for a streak of giddy gallows humor which supplies the film with most of its electricity. Napoleon was, for all his ferocity, a deeply ridiculous man, and Scott never lets us forget that, whether by smash-cutting (so to speak) from a lavish banquet to Napoleon riding Josephine doggy-style or by having him attempt to summon Tsar Alexander of Russia like a cat by making “pspsps” noises. As in House of Gucci, there is a mischievous sense of humor at play here, and the film’s best moments put it front and center.

Unfortunately, Napoleon has to play double-duty as a straight-faced war epic you can take your dad to over Thanksgiving. The battles are handsomely staged and frequently thrilling (particularly a jaw-dropping scene in which Napoleon’s men lure the Russian army onto an iced-over lake before opening cannon fire), but god, do we have to see all of them? Taken one after the other, the action sequences between faceless soldiers become exhausting (my wife, who accompanied me to the afternoon press screening, confessed to nodding off during the battle of Waterloo). These scenes, as well as the endless political discussions which bookend them, ultimately come off as dry and repetitive. One gets the sense that Scott is trying to cram in as much information as possible for the laypeople in the crowd, but as a layman myself, I would have been more than happy to gloss over some of the factual incident to get to more of the juicy stuff.

And, again, the juicy stuff is quite good. Scott’s ace in the hole here is Kirby, who portrays Josephine by turns as wily and vulnerable. This isn’t quite a Priscilla-style woman-behind-the-myth exposé (the mononymic focus of the title is more or less correct), but it almost becomes one when Kirby is onscreen; she conveys in her eyes how much it truly sucks to be a woman in love with the most powerful tyrant in the world– even if that love is well and truly requited. Unlike Jacob Elordi’s Elvis, who views his wife as something between a trophy and a mother, Phoenix’s Napoleon is by all accounts deeply crazy about his Empress, and even seems to view her as something close to an equal. Josephine’s tragedy, however, is that she knows she can never be his equal, not really; there’s a world to conquer, after all, and she knows his ambition will require him to dispose of her the moment her presence ceases to be advantageous. The heart of the film lies in Josephine, and Kirby makes it beat.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Napoleon Bonaparte and Vanessa Kirby stars as Empress Josephine in Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures theatrical release of NAPOLEON. Photo by: Aidan Monaghan

So where does that leave Phoenix? On paper, casting one of our most mercurial and unpredictable actors as one of history’s most mercurial and unpredictable figures is a coup. But the problem with mercurial actors is that they’re, well, mercurial. To be sure, Phoenix does manage to sink his teeth into his share of appropriately gonzo moments, such as when he walks in on Josephine bathing and responds with a delightfully odd bit of horny stammer-clucking, or when he screams at a British admiral, “You think you’re SO GREAT just because you have BOATS!” But for much of the film Phoenix simply seems bored, gazing through lidded eyes at his legions from underneath his big, silly hat and dryly filling his generals in on his latest plan. Phoenix is an actor who delights in zigging when expected to zag, but in this case, the zag would be much more satisfying. The performance we’re left with is muddled and unconvincing. I just didn’t buy him, which is a problem when he’s the focus of nearly every single shot.

Is this performance a fluke, or is it a symptom of something larger? It’s been four years since Joker, the film which contains what will, for better or for worse, almost certainly go down as Phoenix’s signature role. I had no trouble accepting Phoenix’s performances in C’mon C’mon, in which he plays a mostly normal human being, or Beau Is Afraid, which he plays for bonkers comedy. But Napoleon finds him returning to his dominant mode: that of the shifty-eyed, hair-trigger malcontent, which served him so hypnotically well in such films as The Master and You Were Never Really Here. It’s not that Phoenix is bad in Joker; on the contrary, the problem is that he is not significantly worse there than in his more accomplished films, which calls the sincerity of the rest of his performances into question. Now that we’ve seen him ply his trademark physicality in service of the superhero IP gold rush, will we ever again be able to take him seriously in a “real” role? I don’t know, but I hope the answer is yes; he’s too good an actor to lose to that clown.

Back to Napoleon. The great throughline of Ridley Scott’s career is his ability to make entertainments across any number of genres ranging from good to great. Napoleon is good, I suppose– it’s got enough memorable moments and shots to remind you that it’s made by a master– but it’s far from great, and coming on the heels of the delightfully lurid House of Gucci and The Last Duel it can’t help but feel like a disappointment. There’s a good, nasty piece of work in there, but it’s padded with too much history-book pomp and circumstance. True to form, Scott is reportedly preparing an even more expansive director’s cut, clocking in at nearly four hours. Personally, I wish he would take it in the opposite direction, carving out the fat into something leaner and more visceral. Contrary to popular belief, Napoleon was not particularly short. Would that Napoleon stuck to the legend.

dir. Ridley Scott
158 min.

Opens on 70mm Wednesday, 11/22 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre

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