Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon’ Charges Into Battle With Stunning Scale and a Subdued Joaquin Phoenix

Ridley Scott and Napoleon Bonaparte were made for each other. Both define thinking big and charging forward. You could even say both can share in having conquered most of the world through their respective talents. With large ambitions always defining his work, Scott at some point had to arrive at making “Napoleon.” Scott has almost single handedly kept alive the classic swords and horses epic tradition. This biopic of the French conqueror features plenty of grandiosity dressed in lush frames and silks. You almost want to admire it for simply existing, since only Scott may have the clout to pull it off. Yet, the man who reshaped the map of Europe proves a bit too daunting even for this master. 

A natural history buff, Scott opens “Napoleon” with bloody gusto in 1793 as the French Revolution rages on and Marie Antoinette, looking like an outcast from “Cruella,” is led to the guillotine to meet her end. The crowd roars while observing Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix). Robespierre (Sam Troughton) keeps unleashing the Terror against aristocrats and traitors while the monarchies of Europe wage war on the revolutionary republic. Napoleon’s own star as a military figure begins to rise during the Siege of Toulon when he leads a nighttime raid against forces headed by the British. When Robespierre is overthrown, prison doors open and Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), the widow of an executed military man, emerges into the sunlight. She soon meets Napoleon at a party and the attraction is darkly instantaneous. Despite being slightly older than the general, the two become intense lovers and soon marry. Napoleon also carries out a coup and initiates his wars of conquest, stretching from Egypt to Moscow, eventually marching to his own downfall.

What eludes Scott and writer David Scarpa is a clear idea of what they want to say about their subject. This imbalance comes across most clearly in the performance by Joaquin Phoenix. He once famously played the deranged Roman emperor Commodus in Scott’s 2000 classic “Gladiator.” That role had the appropriate amount of fire in the belly. As Napoleon, Phoenix is surprisingly subdued, almost seeming to sleepwalk through the role. For a man setting all of Europe aflame and making kingdoms quake, this Napoleon has no drive and chews no scenery. We can’t tell when the movie wants to take him seriously or possibly use the character as a comedic commentary on dictators. Dialogue is delivered slowly and dryly. Phoenix stands in stark contrast to the much better Vanessa Kirby, who gives Josephine a stronger presence. Is the idea then that she was the real motivator behind Napoleon’s conquests? If so, the relationship itself is presented as rather passionless.  Kirby looks great in the role, first appearing with a Punkish haircut and later lounging, seducing and snapping at the weakling emperor. 

Some critics have jabbed at “Napoleon” for supposed historical inaccuracies. There are a few, as tends to happen with all historical dramas, which are not meant to be documentaries. The basic details are pulled from basic history, including Napoleon crowning himself emperor and yanking the crown away from the pope. What is right on the mark are the juicier intrigues between Napoleon and Josephine. Their correspondence survives and voice overs cheerfully use real lines such as, “I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night’s intoxicating pleasures has left no rest to my senses.” Too bad that Scott and cast deprive the movie itself of any genuine emotional tension. When Napoleon is informed while in Egypt that Josephine is cheating with another man he reacts with such a monotone voice that we wonder if it’s an outtake of Phoenix simply remembering the line. Other moments between the two never have any insights into what reasonable or twisted reasons have brought these two together. They say little to nothing while sitting together in the film’s brilliantly designed sets. Josephine’s inability to have a child seems to fuel Napoleon’s megalomania but it’s all rushed over to make way for epic battles. By the time they get divorced it’s all ending in a whisper rather than hard-hitting drama.

Scott is not the first director to have his conqueror slip through his fingers. Oliver Stone famously bombed with “Alexander,” miscasting Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great and Angelina Jolie as his mother. “Napoleon” has great casting but suffers from something else that plagued Stone’s movie, in that it can’t find a specific, focused angle for the subject. Scott wants to cover it all and it’s intriguing how “Napoleon” says very little in 158 minutes, although Scott plans to release a 4-hour cut on Apple TV. What ideals or inner demons drive Napoleon is skimmed over, including what he actually thought about the French Revolution’s aims. He is the prototype of future dictators who emerged out of the chaotic swirl of revolutionary change, and so deserves keener writing as a dramatic subject. A strong angle that Scarpa’s script hints at is how Napoleon batters the kings of Europe out of an inferiority complex due to his origins as a Corsican. He and his people are seen as ruffians by the elite and monarchs like Russia’s Tsar Alexander (Edouard Philipponnat) mock his lack of good manners. More of this kind of dramatic exploration would have made for a truly stirring portrait.

“Napoleon” is still hugely entertaining on a level of pure visual craft. Scott has perfected his technique in capturing big battles, gorgeous landscapes and widescreen glory. When no one is speaking we can appreciate surreal shots of Napoleon firing cannons at Egyptian pyramids. Combat scenes are dynamic with a riveting sense of the sheer violence involved. Scott and his regular cinematographer Dariusz Wolski don’t shy away from what a cannonball can do to a horse. You can also feel the glacial chill when Napoleon’s troops brutally struggle to survive the Russian winter. A great scene features a battle over a frozen river threatening to crack open. This film doesn’t reach the memorable heights of Scott’s “Gladiator” or “Kingdom of Heaven,” but it’s still inspiring to see him at 85 pulling off this kind of period epic. It just needs the coherence of his last historical drama, “The Last Duel,” which combined subtle self-commentary with a fierce evocation of a medieval world. “Napoleon” is evocative when the camera glides through ballrooms and candlelit corners where the conqueror ponders in silence. The music by Martin Phipps is elegant, at times sounding pulled out of the 18th or 19th centuries.

As a subject Napoleon Bonaparte captured the imagination of filmmakers from the dawn of the medium. The most famous film about the conqueror remains Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic “Napoléon.” The best depictions of Napoleonic battles are in Sergei Bondarchuk’s glorious, 7-hour adaptation of “War and Peace,” which boasts a scale even Sir Ridley Scott can’t match. “Napoleon” concludes as a noble attempt that doesn’t fully succeed, even as it leaves us some memorable imagery. What it’s missing is that human insight is essential to tackling any kind of historical giant, or else we’re just watching a history lesson unfold with a massive budget. Phoenix also doesn’t convince us he’s the kind of man with the force of will to make armies follow him to glory and risk annihilation in Russia. Such figures are larger than life and a movie like this can’t afford to think small or without heart.

Napoleon” releases Nov. 22 in theaters nationwide.