In the closing moments of “Napoleon,” a two-and-a-half-hour saga of both grandeur and gritty theatrics, a concluding chyron reveals that France’s self-declared emperor presided over 61 battles. Among these, director Ridley Scott selectively stages six, leaving audiences to ponder his motivations—whether for their benefit or his own glory. The film unfolds as a cinematic spectacle, reminiscent of classic “great man” movies from the late ’50s and early ’60s, showcasing Scott’s technical prowess but grappling with the challenge of presenting a biopic in an era critical of power-hungry figures.
Joaquin Phoenix embodies Napoleon Bonaparte, delivering a performance that is simultaneously mumbly and oddly anti-charismatic, portraying the short, slender outsider who ascended to rule France post-revolution. Scott and Phoenix inject a touch of camp into their depiction, portraying Napoleon as a petulant brat-cum-military genius. However, the film’s focus leans heavily towards Josephine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby), Napoleon’s wife, diverting attention from the expansive combat scenes that underscore both the military brilliance of Napoleon and Scott’s directorial skill.
Known for immersive warfare portrayals, Scott steps back in “Napoleon,” adopting a widescreen format reminiscent of cinematic greats like Abel Gance and Sergei Bondarchuk. The film traces Napoleon’s journey from a promising young officer witnessing Marie Antoinette’s guillotining to his exile on St. Helena. While Josephine’s passionate relationship with Napoleon adds emotional depth, it occasionally distracts from the film’s central selling point—the epic battlefield sequences.
The brilliance of Scott’s direction shines when the narrative delves into warfare, with scenes that vividly capture the chaos and strategy of historical battles. However, the film’s attempt to cover significant ground in its runtime results in a dense yet unhurried narrative that fails to truly come alive. Phoenix’s portrayal contributes to a certain confusion, as his unconventional take on Napoleon—a portrayal of the insecure, antisocial man-child—differs starkly from historical depictions.
Despite Scott’s efforts to present alternative perspectives on Napoleon, the film falls short of feeling truly revisionist. The script takes on an ambitious scope, exploring Napoleon’s career and the dynamics with Josephine, but the film’s ambitions seem to exceed audience demands. If the aim was to reevaluate Napoleon through the lens of his relationship with Josephine, the film could have benefited from a more focused narrative and a nuanced exploration of their power dynamic. In the end, “Napoleon” appears less enamored with its subject, sacrificing psychological depth for the sake of grand spectacle, much like the historical conflicts it seeks to recreate.