There can be no doubt that Grandmaster Ridley Scott is one of our greatest living filmmakers. Even so far into his eighties, he remains a prolific director/producer who’s left an indelible influence across multiple genres. But with Kingdom of Heaven, The Last Duel, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and of course Gladiator on his CV, Scott has spent the past twenty years carving out an especially productive niche in the area of historical epics.
As such, Scott seems like he’d be a natural fit for Napoleon, a biopic about one of history’s all-time greatest military minds. Even better, he reunited with screenwriter David Scarpa (late of All the Money in the World) and star Joaquin Phoenix at the height of his Oscar popularity. And they brought along the massively underrated Vanessa Kirby to play Josephine Bonaparte.
On paper, this all sounds like a surefire hit. And then came the actual film. What the hell happened?!
To start with, Scott’s impeccable skill at shooting and editing massive period action set pieces is on full display. In particular, the climactic battle at Waterloo is appropriately messy, and the Battle of Austerlitz at the halfway point is freaking spectacular. Alas, the battles are few and far between across this 157-minute runtime, and depressingly little emphasis is placed on Napoleon’s military career.
Instead, the film puts far more time and attention toward Napoleon’s personal/romantic life, his rise and fall in the politics of France, and how the two affect each other. This is where we keep running into problems.
A massive recurring issue is Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. Yes, he most certainly would’ve been a fantastic choice to play Napoleon… back in 2000. Gladiator-era Phoenix would’ve been incredible for the part, Joker-era Phoenix not so much. Yes, we’re getting Napoleon as played by the more “eccentric” persona that Phoenix has cultivated over the past few years. It doesn’t work.
I went into this movie hoping to learn more about what made Napoleon such a brilliant tactician and how he shot to power in so short a time. As best I can tell from the film, it’s not that Napoleon had any skill in politics or in navigating personal agendas — it’s that the French Revolution left a massive power vacuum just in time for Napoleon to step in and fill it. In point of fact, the film’s portrayal of Napoleon doesn’t seem to have much of any tact or insight into dealing with other people. Easily his greatest strength as a general is that he’s a stone-cold sociopath who doesn’t mind betraying his own principles or sending his own people to die if it means he eventually wins.
Then we have Vanessa Kirby. To be clear, I love Vanessa Kirby. I know for a fact that she can do sexy, she can do seductive, she can do ambitious and ruthless, she could do literally anything this role called for. Which makes it all the more baffling that she consistently made the worst possible choice at every turn with this character.
Phoenix and Kirby both inexplicably made the choice to play their respective characters as impenetrable narcissists who steadfastly refuse to let their emotions be known lest they give up any manner of control. And these two are the romantic leads. It’s like watching two magnets of the same polarity: They’re so much alike that the chemistry between them is actively repulsive.
When some rousing speech calls for Napoleon to be charismatic, Phoenix doesn’t sell it. When the film wants us to believe that Napoleon is a creature of unchecked ambition who only wants more power (or anything aside from the thrill of winning on the battlefield), the film doesn’t sell it. When Napoleon goes on and on about how much he loves Josephine, Phoenix and Kirby totally and utterly fail to sell a word of it.
I’m left wondering what the point of this movie even was. Sure, Napoleon Bonaparte remains a massively important historical figure and I’m sure he has a fascinating story worth telling. But why now? Why did this movie have to be made in this particular way to suit the audiences and Oscar voters of this exact moment? If I squint and tilt my head, I can see something in here about a time of divided politics, sovereignty decided by coup, and the fate of a nation being decided by the whims of a vainglorious idiot, all of which are potentially relevant in a Trump-era USA. But again, the film spends so much time getting lost in Napoleon’s eccentricities — instead of his motivations or skills — that the film stops short of making anything but the most generic point.
Knowing Sir Ridley Scott, I don’t know if we’ll be able to properly judge Napoleon until the four-hour director’s cut is released. Even then, I don’t know if a longer running time would help anything, unless maybe it adds another battlefield set piece to flesh out Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt. The big problems here come back to the two lead performances, which do nothing to humanize the film’s subjects or clarify any major themes.
With all due respect, Sir Ridley Scott, we already got Beau Is Afraid — if we want to see Joaquin Phoenix acting bugfuck insane, that’s more than enough for one year. And hell, Vanessa Kirby showed off more of her range and acting chops in ten minutes of Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One than she did in all 157 minutes here!
Everything about this was a good idea on paper that had the misfortune of getting made at the wrong time. Swing and a miss.