Feature Film Review: NAPOLEON | Buzz Blog

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Feature Film Review: NAPOLEON

A profile of a power-hungry leader who deserves to be an object of ridicule

Posted By on November 18, 2023, 11:44 AM

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Actors and filmmakers can say whatever they want about what drew them to a project, but that doesn’t stop me from having my own head-canon. Maybe director Ridley Scott and star Joaquin Phoenix came to Napoleon just wanting to work together again more than 20 years after Gladiator; maybe the lure of exploring one of the most famous people in history was too much to resist. Or maybe, just maybe, after a certain regime in American history, they loved the idea of painting the most powerful man in the world as a power-hungry idiot who nods off during crucial briefings because he’s too bored to pay attention, with a wife who barely seems to tolerate him except as access to that power.

Look, I won’t stretch the analogy too far. After all, Napoleon does acknowledge that its subject was a savant in at least one area—military tactics—which is one more than the Former Guy. But it seems possible that David Scarpa’s script was inspired by wondering what happens when people who are the best at pursuing power are also the least capable of putting it to good use. Plus, it might make the whole thing more enjoyable to watch if the petty dictator in question is made to look consistently ridiculous.

It’s got a wide span to cover, opening in the aftermath of the French Revolution in 1789 as the country’s fledgling democracy faces both external threats from the British and internal challenges from inept new leaders and rebel monarchists. Napoleon Bonaparte (Phoenix) seems to understand that both kinds of problems can be solved by cannon fire—and he is more than happy to employ it.

The most satisfying thing about the way Phoenix plays Napoleon, however, is that he’s often a comic figure rather than a tough guy. One of the earliest battle scenes—as Napoleon leads the French to a rout of the English soldiers occupying the port of Toulon in 1793—finds the general practically hyperventilating with anxiety as he launches his plan, then immediately being unhorsed by a cannonball as he charges into combat. And when he opens a sarcophagus in Egypt to contemplate the honored long-ago ruler to whom he might compare himself, he awkwardly bumps the mummified corpse. Over and over again, at the moments when Napoleon might have placed Napoleon on a pedestal, Phoenix’s terrific performance has him do a pratfall off of it.

Much of that irreverent material involves his relationship with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), from the moment he spots her at a party and gawks at her none-too-subtly. Kirby plays Josephine as a pragmatic widow realizing she’s hitched herself to a rising star, and gets a few moments to perfectly play her lack of respect for Napoleon. But mostly her character lingers in the shadows, a bit less fully developed. Occasionally, Napoleon appears to be on the verge of treating their relationship sincerely as one of those “romances that changed the course of history” like Antony and Cleopatra, only to pivot back to showing how Napoleon’s swooning letters were less about love than about possession, about a man who wanted to control things realizing this relationship wasn’t fully under his control.

Napoleon certainly doesn’t ignore the political and military side of these pivotal years, though that might also be where it’s least interesting. Scott has the ability to convey a real, tactile battlefield sequence in a way that shows where Napoleon’s plans are succeeding, and where they are not, yet some of those sequences do drag on in a way that feels distracting. The various machinations and attempts at brokering alliances similarly get the toes to tapping impatiently, except when they serve as an opportunity to watch Napoleon again fumbling while attempting to appear sophisticated, like sharing a joke with Russia’s Tsar Nicholas that the tsar quickly informs him isn’t exactly original.

Ridley Scott hasn’t been known primarily as a director of comedies, so it might be a bit strange to think of Napoleon that way. That is, however, the level on which it works best, even as Phoenix understands never to tip the portrayal into complete farce. It’s a character study of an emperor who strides into a conquered land, sits on his enemy’s throne, and immediately has the birds fluttering through the room take a shit on the gilded seat. Sometimes, the best way to respond to a fool, even a powerful fool, is to laugh at them. CW

About The Author

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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