There is something very 2004 about Ridley Scott's Napoleon in that it is first and foremost a large historical epic that one might have expected Scott to cash in his Gladiator chips on (it's also he and Joaquin Phoenix's first collaboration since), but more so because it shows no obvious signs of CGI saturation (aside from a few extras in a single battle sequence and a horse carcass) and when combined with Scott's wiggle room to get a little weird here and there it felt at times as if I were back in high school seeing a movie my dad would have been excited for on Thanksgiving break rather than the Apple Studios produced, long in gestation project it became that at times seemed unattainable and unfortunately sometimes still feels as much throughout its execution. The context with which one views Napoleon might be more critical to its reception (as is true with most expectations) than in most cases; the point in this instance being that there are multiple options for which to go into this. Knowing a little or a lot are always available, but knowing Scott has already discussed a lengthier version of the film immediately implies this is something of a CliffsNotes version of what he intended to make. Granted, the life of Napoleon Bonaparte is something one either takes at wholesale or investigates individually given the breadth of history the man was directly involved in and responsible for shaping, but Scott tries to have his cake and eat it too resulting in what is currently a nearly three-hour experience that still feels abbreviated.

There is a quote from David Fincher from when he was making Gone Girl that I go back to often. Fincher said, “The book is many things. You have to choose which aspect you want to make a movie from." With Napoleon and David Scarpa's screenplay in particular, Scott's instinct seems to have latched onto Bonaparte's relationship with Vanessa Kirby's Empress Joséphine. This is the aspect he truly wants to make a film about, but of course if a movie about this grand historical figure doesn't feature the grand historical battles of Waterloo and Austerlitz the movie doesn't exist at all. Scott understands this probably more than anyone else working in Hollywood today and thus is the reason that aspect he was so keen to latch onto would seemingly have a stronger correlation to these battles than is presented in the movie. This is a movie that features a scene in which Kirby's Joséphine warns Bonaparte that should he glance upon her unmentionables he will find a surprise and that once he sees it, he will always want it. It has a kinky little attitude for sure, but the point is whatever control and/or influence Joséphine held over her husband Scott and Scarpa's thesis around how this impotence in their marriage translated to one of the more feared megalomaniacs in the history and strategy of warfare is never made clear. There is certainly something more to this dynamic if not for Joséphine's own words, but for the ways in which we see the titular character return to her time and time again despite her unfaithfulness and despite her inability to bear him an heir (as well as the added caveat that she seems genuinely repulsed by him). There are naturally moments throughout the film that suggest the type of fulfillment a woman like Joséphine might bring to a man with Napoleon's need for reassurance and praise (the “most important thing in the world” bit is a great character moment though), but the psychology of how this symbiotic relationship works is so clearly what is intended that its almost complete absence from the proceedings leaves the film with a hollow center. 

Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) likes a good battle, but not too much noise.
Photo by Courtesy of Sony - © Sony

Of course, at the center of the film is Phoenix who doesn't even attempt a French accent and who could seemingly give as much of a shit about not attempting one as Scott does the historical accuracy of his picture. That said, the film overall tends to fail its protagonist in terms of getting inside his head and rationalizing the decisions he made because the film itself feels so preoccupied with simply making sure it hits all the events and notable moments it can cram into a theatrically releasable runtime. There is no driving narrative force, no adversary with whom Napoleon has a longstanding rivalry that builds to a crescendo, or even a goal that rests idly inside him that is out of reach during his rise to power that we are made aware of early on and that we know must be accomplished in order for him to feel some type of satisfaction. Thus, the movie feels like a series of strung together – albeit beautifully rendered - action sequences with interstitials featuring this guy's rolodex of weird arousals. This is the long way of expressing that for a film with an initial runtime of two hours and thirty-eight minutes with a reported four-hour version in the kitchen, I don't know that length is as much the issue as it is the editing or rather the lack of harmony in what was shot to effectively shape a stronger, more compelling narrative. Should the extended cut be able to equate his ruthlessness on the battlefield to his feebleness in the bedroom or more so, why it would seem Joséphine is nothing without him yet – at least in Napoleon’s mind – it is truly the other way around then more power to editors Sam Restivo and Claire Simpson as they are clearly doing their best to whittle down a multitude of movies into a single conversation. 

What Phoenix’s performance does relay is a kind of restrained, stoic façade that doesn’t tend to break for many. At the beginning of this film Napoleon is in his mid-twenties and Phoenix plays him every step of the way up until his death in 1861 at the age of fifty-three. Throughout all Napoleon’s experiences though, the most telling moments are the smallest; whether that be in Napoleon taking away a man’s dessert for informing him of his wife’s infidelities or placing his hat upon the top of an Egyptian sarcophagus there is a depth the performance hints at that the movie never fulfills. While Scarpa’s script knows it’s too broad to get into too much detail about all the people surrounding Napoleon and propping up his rise (despite plastering many a names on screen) we are also kept at a distance by Phoenix himself, that is, until Kirby shows up. That the movie makes no excuses for and more or less supports Joséphine’s willingness and ability to do whatever (and whoever) it takes to survive at a certain status level is appreciated, but somehow it never feels there is enough scenery for Kirby to chew. While Phoenix’s choice to play this more internally keeps us guessing at his motivations and reasonings (the same way the film in general does around its larger conflicts due to its brisk tour through history) there is an inherent connection and understanding in Kirby’s depiction of this woman who lost her first husband during the Reign of Terror and was imprisoned until five days after his execution. Her motivations and reasonings couldn’t be clearer and we all know Kirby has true screen presence, but it is again the inability of the piece to draw out the provocateur of these actions and how it relates to the larger imprint on history that make it all feel a little empty. 

Napoleon crowns his wife Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) whom he both loves and detests.
Photo by Courtesy of Sony - © Sony

That isn’t to say what Scott has put on screen isn’t effective as many of the individual shots in many of the battle sequences are as gorgeous as they are grotesque, context or not. The amount of work and preparation that goes into shooting something like the battle of Waterloo for the limited amount of screentime it ultimately takes up would likely be unbearable to hear and no one’s effort in that regard should be discredited; it’s truly impressive, grand-scale stuff. Touches such as frequent fades to a blistering white and the inclusion of certain lines of dialogue and those smaller moments lend an intentionality to the piece. The slightly farcical nature of how the film handles the formalities of the time period paired with the edge the movie is lent by Joséphine’s infidelities and Napoleon’s insecurities that give way to the inner workings of their relationship is oftentimes fascinating. The film frequently feels more like more of a burden, an endeavor to trudge through than it does an adventure to experience. While this is due largely to the pacing, Scott clearly doesn’t care what people think about his storytelling these days and while this can be a disservice in many regards it is also undoubtedly what leads to some of >Napoleon’s greatest strengths. So, here’s hoping that extended version we’ve been promised isn’t simply an extension of scenes, but Scott leaning further into the themes of the story that attracted him to it in the first place: destiny…and probably lamb chops as well.

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