Ridley Scott's take on the historical character is technically astounding if narratively shallow
Apple Studios seem to be one of the few still shelling out big money for the type of cinematic epics that have gone the wayside for comic-book fare. Their funding of the expensive Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) and Napoleon (2023) showcase the lifeline to large auteur work that feels tragically fading quickly.
Napoleon is Ridley Scott’s take on the famously unwieldy life of the French emperor. We follow the rise of French military officer Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) at the dawn of the French revolution, into becoming French Emperor, and to his final downfall at Waterloo. The film also focuses on his toxic relationship with his wife Josephine (Vanessa Kirby).
Scott is a director well-versed in the historical epic, his Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), and The Last Duel (2021) films are standard-bearers of the genre. The character of Napoleon has been notoriously difficult to adapt to film, Stanley Kubrick himself had an un-filmed screenplay that Steven Spielberg is turning into an HBO miniseries. Scott, like any daring artist, is trying his hand at this historical character, and pulls off an ambitious, technically marvelous, but narratively shallow take.
The screenplay by David Scarpa crams three battles and a focus on Josephine and Napoleon’s relationship as the crux of the narrative. The battles are the central highlight of Napoleon, with Scott delivering the type of gritty and comprehensive approach to these sequences that made his opening of Gladiator so captivating. The clear use of on-location shooting and thousands of extras in this battles also helps add an authenticity that most CGI armies are unable to deliver.
Scott and Scarpa’s approach to cracking open the character of Napoleon through Josephine, however, falls flatter. Kirby is imperious as Josephine, stealing scenes with Phoenix with a total command of her character and her flitting emotions. Phoenix and the script, however, struggle to pin down a consistent tone or motivation to Napoleon, leading to a flip-flopping performance that leaves viewers more confused as to who this character was. The lack of character consistency prevents Phoenix from truly transforming into the character either, with viewers unable to see past the actor in a costume.
There are some long films that earn their runtime and deliver a full story, much as Oppenheimer (2023) did earlier this year. Many others, however, seem to be resisting a much more suitable switch to a TV format, with more hours to settle and delve into the incredible amount of content and character work that a subject as Napoleon requires.
In the end, Napoleon ends up being an enjoyable and ambitiously respectable take on the historical character from Scott. The film is a technical marvel, yet the enormity of its subject along with a strapped script and lead performer that are unable to crack the character open, leads to a distanced and brief summary of the true story of Napoleon Bonaparte.