Is Ridley Scott’s Napoleon dynamite?

Director: Ridley Scott Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby Running Time: 157 minutes

Is it important for a film to be historically accurate? Ridley Scott’s belligerent press tour for Napoleon suggests an emphatic no, where some directors aim for painstaking accuracy in every detail, the veteran director is operating on a more youthful just-vibes vibe, painting an impressionistic picture in the general shape of the imposing figure of Napoleon Bonaparte and the heavy shadow he cast across the world. With a director well-versed in epics, and scenes of battles and tense courts throughout his films running time, a self-serious history lesson may seem like the order of the day, but was Napoleon after all, not the original silly little guy who started fights and then insisted it was his birthday?

From his own eagerness to craft his legacy, to enemy propoganda to the muddy memory of the books, ‘Napoleon’ exists more as a character in some ways than a man of record, and it’s that character and the intrigue inside it that Scott explores, with Joaquin Phoenix very much along for the ride, swinging his sabre wildly as he steps into the general’s shoes of disputed size.

Depicting the Reign of Terror as low brow entertainment to whip up the masses, gurning, grinning, grey faces cheering as Marie Antoinette and others are marched to the chopping block, Scott suggests France as a country primed for a populist figurehead. It also needs a strong military hand to keep the revolution from spilling out of control (ie into the wrong hands). Tahar Rahim as Paul Barras picks Napoleon, eager to ascend and do his Corsican momma proud, as his on-the-ground attack dog. Phoenix’s stiff body language and soft spoken voice embody the thinking of Barras and other French leaders about their general, that’s he pliable, reliable and easily controlled. He isn’t though, he’s egotistical, odd and very, very horny – once Vanessa Kirby’s Josephine steps into the scene, his efforts to please/control/procreate with her dominate Napoleon’s thoughts all through his ascent to power. Phoenix plays the rise of one of the most powerful men in history as a simp with a chip on his shoulder, his soft touch comedic chops lifting every line reading into a pathetic whine.

It makes for a watchable performance, as the plot haphazardly jumps around Wikipedia summaries of events, the intrigue comes from wondering how Phoenix is going to play Napoleon’s jealousy, his lust, or his awkward attempts to fit the mould of a supremely selected Emperor. A longer cut from Scott is inevitable, making the film as is feel strangely shaped, hopping between eras and struggling to circle back to its main thread: the relationship between Napoleon and Josephine.

Vanessa Kirby’s Josephine is weary, well aware of what both her husband and the world watching expect from her, constantly. There’s a heavy transactional element, and Kirby’s confident performance sings loudest when she responds to a furiously jealous Napoleon with a demand that he confess how he’s nothing without her. The tension in exploring how much genuine love there is in their relationship, which has its tenderness amidst the pomp, circumstance and soap opera, is genuinely interesting, gives the actors the most to work with, and seems like the story Scott is most interested in telling. But with so much else going on, it gets lost often, and Kirby’s screentime as it stands is below what would be required to really serve that particuarly story best.

Scott can bring us through battle scenes in his sleep, and his takes on Bonaparte’s greatest hits are impressive in scale, suitably gruesome, and do a good job of showing its subject’s prowess as a planner on the battlefield to the layperson. A savant of savagery, Phoenix’s Napoleon has the pathetic pathos of Elmer Fudd, and the same lonely longing. But more focus on the object of his desire would give this take on Napoleon a better chance of standing tall.

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *