If 2021’s “House of Gucci” was overambitious, 2023’s “Napoleon” was not ambitious enough. Between those films and box office flop “The Last Duel,” Ridley Scott has been firing a lot of scattershot blanks lately.
Despite the film’s nearly three-hour runtime, I walked out of the theater without learning much about Napoleon. The promotional posters read, “Tyrant, Lover, Conqueror, Emperor, Soldier, Thug,” and he is indeed portrayed to be all those things — but we never get an insight into his childhood or the forces that formed Napoleon and gave him those qualities. Exposition is sparse, and there’s a lack of gravity in transition; it feels as if in one scene, Napoleon is a soldier, and then suddenly he is second in command of the army, then a consul, and before you know it, he is emperor of France.
Events casually progress, without much explanation of that progression. We get little insight into Napoleon’s inner dialogue or how he might have felt in the face of such world-altering events. I don’t envy anyone who has to simplify the incredibly complicated French Revolution into film format, but regardless, it doesn’t feel particularly well done.
The historical accuracy of the film has already been the cause of gripes. The French certainly never fired cannonballs at the pyramids of Egypt. I don’t mind historical edits if those edits simplify a narrative with underlying truth — sometimes it’s more effective to present the past in a tidy, simplified fashion that’s easy to digest. A figure like Napoleon will always be a hero to some, and any portrayal of him as less than perfect is bound to draw some ire, and this film does not portray him as particularly sympathetic. He’s shown to be a borderline incel with an inconsistent temperament and a lack of emotional maturity.
Other inaccuracies involve scrambled timing of certain events, or the presence of Napoleon in situations he did not attend in real life. History buffs will never leave a Hollywood production happy, and these inaccuracies are not my primary complaint. The real problem with “Napoleon” is a lack of conviction about its subject. He’s portrayed as a small, insecure man who has great power but also great limitations, yet his motivations are never properly explored. It feels like a real waste of Joaquin Phoenix’s talent. The American accent for the heroes is also a bit strange, considering every other accent is accurate to the character’s origin (British, Russian, etc.).
There are a few saving graces. The costumes are fantastic, and Scott knows how to stage battle scenes. The battle on the lake of ice rivals the Battle of the Bastards from “Game of Thrones” for one of the best war scenes I’ve seen in the last 10 years. It’s undeniable the spell his empress, Josephine, casts upon Napoleon. At times, their chemistry is palpable, even if his infatuation with her isn’t particularly well explained.
I also appreciated a portrayal of such a great military conqueror, up there with Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great, as a nervous wreck who really struggled to get himself together in battle but managed to pull through in the end. I imagine that might be true of many great figures in history.
A few scenes are particularly poignant: Napoleon standing on a box to match the height of a mummy and look into the eyes of an ancient king, and Josephine telling Napoleon in a seductive whisper that without her, he is nothing, and he knows it. But it feels like a smattering of compelling scenes stuffed with an excessive amount of filler.
I’m not sure who this film was designed to please. History buffs will likely complain about the accuracy, and as someone who knew little about Napoleon beforehand, I don’t feel as if I learned much about him. It’s a shame considering the wealth of material Scott had to work with. I doubt “Napoleon” will be a film much remembered.
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