Despite a committed performance by Joaquin Phoenix, Napoleon never manages to fully capture the greatness that its subject possessed.
Napoleon Bonaparte is such fertile ground for a film that Stanley Kubrick wanted to make a movie about him. This vision was instead taken up by Ridley Scott, a far more prolific and far less measured filmmaker. The film he gives us, Napoleon, is massive in scale and scope, featuring a lead performance from the great Joaquin Phoenix. On paper, the film sounds like a classic; unfortunately, it ultimately struggles to live up to its potential and never can live up to the greatness of its subject.
Napoleon charts its titular figure’s growth from a lieutenant in the French military to its most important general to its eventual emperor. The film shows his military achievements, the different important events of his life, and his imperial ambitions. But the main focus of the movie is his love affair with his wife and empress, played by the wonderful Vanessa Kirby. Through the film, we see the rise and fall of both his career and the love that they share.
I love history, and I do not know much about Napoleon besides the fact that he had a Bicorne hat and was an angry short man. I was looking forward to seeing this movie to learn more about the man, why he is such an important figure, and what made him tick. Napoleon does not seem interested in those questions. We never explore Napoleon’s past in any great detail, as the film drops us into the French Revolution where he is a soldier. This is an interesting starting point, as it allows us to be introduced to our character through his actions and his achievements.
However, all the film shows us are his battles and his relationship to his wife, meaning we never get to understand what his motivations are for seeking power. This made it so I never felt invested in the character as I was watching the film. It made it hard for me to stay engaged with the different actions he took. Additionally, we never get to see the impact of any of the several governments of France on the people of the nation, so when we do see the struggle for power in France, it is essentially meaningless to us. Napoleon is never shown to be an effective or ineffective leader, only a successful general. This further omission once again leaves the character feeling underdeveloped and at times uninteresting.
What we do learn about Napoleon comes in the form of Joaquin Phoenix’s characterization of him. Phoenix plays him as a cold and arrogant man, but the portrayal sometimes comes off as stiff and detached. This choice is clearly purposeful, and it serves to show that Napoleon wants to appear unaffected by the violence of the battlefield and the treachery of politics.
But Napoleon doesn’t recognize that combining a flat portrayal of a character with an underwritten psychological profile of him makes him a rather dull and uninteresting watch. As a leader and a politician, we do not get any sense of his tactics or effect on others. He is certainly a man not to be trifled with, but Phoenix doesn’t give us anything more than that. He rises through the ranks and is sought out as an ally for his excellent military tactics and leadership, but we never get to see him interact with his men or see his effect on them.
We do get to see Phoenix interact with his soldiers in a quite emotional scene, later in the film, but due to the lack of development of his relationship with his subjects and subordinates, this feels unearned, which is a shame because it could have been a moving piece of acting.
The aspect of the character that Napoleon does focus on is his relationship with women, and in these scenes, Phoenix is at his best. He plays the jealous husband well, with his removal sometimes bubbling into rage. In his best scene, he gets is getting humbled by his wife, Josephine, and we see him lose his composure for the first time. Phoenix is excellent at showing vulnerability through sexual humiliation, and he makes us feel for a fragile and infantile man who is desperate to please the women in his life. The film hints at this with his relationship with his mother, but this is never fleshed out, another missed opportunity to deepen our understanding Napoleon.
However, moments like the aforementioned scene are few and far between. He is often restricted to simply being either petulant or cold, with little justification for either character trait. The screenplay constantly shortchanges an actor like Phoenix, who has such incredible range and precision, and it doesn’t allow him to make the most of this fascinating character, leading to a solid performance, but certainly not a great one.
While Phoenix’s portrayal of Napoleon feels slightly underwhelming, Vanessa Kirby is excellent as his wife. Kirby plays Josephine as a woman who always needs to be careful, minding Napoleon’s demands and trying to maintain her status and power. At times, that caution manifests itself as patience, playfulness, or terror, but in her eyes, you can always see her thinking and plotting her next move. Her relationship with Napoleon is always tense and intriguing because we never really know how she feels about him. This inscrutability, combined with a very seductive quality that she possesses, makes every scene that she is in stand out.
However, once again, we do not get to see Josephine do very much. Her role in Napoleon is confined to the role of wife, and she plays this dutifully, but at times I wanted slightly more from her. In the middle of the movie, where the dramatic tension is supposed to be ratcheting up, we get a series of scenes in which it begins to feel like we are treading over the same ground with her character. I would have liked to see more variety in the conflicts between the couple so that, if we are only going to see this woman as a wife, at least we’d get to understand her as a slightly more complex and interesting character.
The best part of Napoleon is undoubtedly the battle scenes. Ridley Scott is one of the best filmmakers ever at working at scale, able to make the set pieces feel grand and awe-inspiring while maintaining legibility. Every battle scene feels engaging and unique. The first scene is a bit harder to understand than the others, simply because it takes place at night, but the others are all clean and visually engrossing. The highlight of Napoleon is the Battle of Austerlitz scene. The battle, which takes place on icy terrain, shows us the violence both at a distance so we can understand the tactical battle that is taking place along with close-ups that allow us to witness the carnage in vicious detail.
The use of effects is excellent, highlighting the chaotic nature of war with cannonballs and bloody entrails that make the battle even more visceral. The ending of the battle, using the icy terrain to its most deadly effect, is stunning, highlighting the cruel genius of Napoleon’s mind better than anything else in the film. It is a breathtaking moment that is worth the price of admission alone.
Overall, Napoleon isn’t a bad film, but a slightly underdeveloped one, which is concerning for a 2-hour and 48-minute movie. I left the film knowing little about Napoleon as a leader or a person. The story of him and Josephine is compelling, but at times it feels a bit one note, and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance leaves something to be desired.
It seems like a lot of the concerns I have might be addressed in the 4-hour version of the film Scott is in the process of editing for Apple TV+. He said they will expand on Josephine’s life, and hopefully, on Napoleon as a leader and man as well. But the film shouldn’t have needed an extra hour to make Napoleon a better more well-defined character. Ridley Scott wasn’t able to capture the life of this great man well enough to make this a truly great biopic, but the movie is at least an entertaining watch.
Napoleon will be released globally in theaters on November 22, 2023, before streaming on Apple TV+.