Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: David Scarpa
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby
Duration: 160 mins
Available in: Theatres
It’s tempting to suggest that director Ridley Scott’s decision to tell the story of Napoleon Bonaparte using short fragments is a tongue-in-cheek salute to the one-time French emperor’s physical stature. Bonaparte has become an icon of short-form masculinity, to the extent that the term Napoleon complex (also known as small people syndrome) is named after him and describes aggressive behaviour that seeks to overcompensate for physical or social shortcomings. However, the fact is Bonaparte wasn’t short. The enduring image of him being a tiny, disgruntled man is thanks to the popularity of the work of British cartoonist James Gillray. In reality, Bonaparte was approximately the same height as Joaquin Phoenix, who is the protagonist of the sprawling biopic, Napoleon.
This scrap of factual accuracy might just be a coincidence. For the better part of Napoleon, Scott is not bothered by prosaic things like historical record, despite the regular captions that inform us of years and locations. The director’s response to the news that French critics had pointed out inaccuracies in Napoleon was one that hummed with adolescent belligerence — “Were you there? Oh, you weren’t there. Then, how do you know?” Take that, all ye historians including Michael Broers, historical consultant on Napoleon who, when asked about Scott’s take on Bonaparte, delicately opined that his professional opinion as the author of a three-volume biography of Bonaparte is “not quite that”.
In all fairness, there is arguably enough scholarship on Napoleon Bonaparte for those interested in a straightforward biography and woe betide anyone who turns to Hollywood for lessons on European history. What is more interesting to note are the areas in which Scott has chosen to veer away from historical realism and where he’s leaned towards authenticity. Napoleon begins with Queen Marie Antoinette walking up to the guillotine while a mob bays for her blood. From the crowd to the 18th-century Parisian square and the decapitated head that is triumphantly displayed, everything feels chillingly accurate. The fictional detail is the sight of Napoleon in the crowd. Factually speaking, he was in Toulon (which is where the narrative jumps to soon after the opening scene). There’s no explanation for why Scott felt the need to tweak history and begin with the French queen’s beheading — unless the motivation really was as simple as reducing violence on a female body into a casual spectacle.
The lavish budget and ambitious scope of Scott’s cinematic ambitions are evident in the panoramic shots of wars that gouged tranquillity out of pristine landscapes, like the windswept grassy plains around Waterloo and the snow-blanketed, fog-wrapped Russian countryside. There’s a sequence in which a group of soldiers fall through a frozen lake to their death, turning from human figures into abstracts made up of unnatural angles, slow swirls of red blood and jagged shards of white ice. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski filmed the terrible beauty of this scene in a way that manages to be both the stuff of enchantment and also horror. Whether or not this is actually what happened in the battlefields where the legend of Bonaparte was created, Scott’s recreations of the war scenes feel both real as well as credibly dramatic.
Then there is the fiction, like Joaquin Phoenix, fixed in the amber of his late-40s, playing Napoleon from the ages of 24 to 51. Or Vanessa Kirby, 35, who is charismatic enough as Josephine to make you turn a blind eye to facts. Never mind that the real Josephine was six years older than Bonaparte and didn’t have the equivalent of Kirby’s cutglass, posh accent. The historical Josephine spoke French in a Creole twang — she was born to a family of white settlers in the French colony of Martinique. Her accent didn’t endear her to the Parisian elite. She survived an uprising in the colonised island, made her way to mainland France, navigated elite French society and emerged from the French Revolution and Reign of Terror as a widow with a prison record and two children. From here, Josephine became the Empress of France. At age 46, after almost 15-odd years of marriage, Josephine was forced to consent to a divorce from Bonaparte, who wanted heirs. (Ironically, while there are no legitimate direct descendants of Bonaparte’s line, Josepine is counted as an ancestor by the modern Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian and Belgian royal families.)
None of this is of interest to Scott, who sees Josephine only as a vague embodiment of feminine distraction. She is the love of his Napoleon’s life and the military genius’s Achilles heel; a chesty temptress whose careless infidelity distracts Napoleon from key campaigns and reduces him to a howling mess. She is the lover with whom Napoleon does baby-talk and the woman who can go from submissive to dominatrix in the space of an exhale. Napoleon relies heavily on the famously passionate love letters that Bonaparte wrote to Josephine while they were married, to give the film an emotional charge, but the longing in the words feels awkwardly dissociated from the action on screen.
Despite two powerhouse performers delivering compelling performances, Napoleon and Josephine’s relationship rarely feels either coherent or poignant. There are only fragmentary moments that crackle with electricity. Their relationship zig zags erratically, moving from attraction to distaste to violence without a perceptible connecting thread. One of Scott’s many tweaks to history is in the scene where the imperial marriage is dissolved. Having repeatedly suggested Napoleon is hopelessly in love with Josephine while Josephine only tolerates him because she’s a dependant, the couple are shown to have settled into a comfortable unhappiness when they decide to end their marriage. The historical record says the divorce ceremony had an audience of witnesses before whom Napoleon and Josephine read out statements of devotion to one another before dissolving their marriage. Josephine was in tears while reading her statement. Scott adds a detail: He has Napoleon slap Josephine when she breaks down, creating a moment that is unsettling for both how jarring and fleeting Napoleon’s viciousness feels. Much like the decision to include Marie-Antoinette’s beheading in Napoleon, Scott’s reworking of history in this case can only be described as disappointing.
Had Scott been interested in Josephine’s perspective, maybe this fictional love story would have come across as poignant and conflicting. Unfortunately, Scott has little interest in interiority and this is not just true of Josephine. Even Phoenix doesn’t get much scope to build a nuanced character. Instead, his Napoleon ricochets from year to year, war to war, ever grumpy and never changing. The transitions are few and the pace is jumpy. David Scarpa’s script feels more like a Powerpoint presentation made out of Spark Notes than the recounting of a storied life. One moment, Napoleon asks his young new wife, “Would you like to see the bedroom?” The next moment, a newborn infant is brought to him. In one scene, Napoleon seems to command the affection and loyalty of French soldiers even though his military strategies used them as cannon fodder. Moments later, he’s lost his troops and is being exiled. Despite the excellent battle scenes, which make majestic use of the big screen, the film leaves one with little sense of what made Bonaparte a military genius and there is no mention at all of any of his actual contributions to French polity. Not that the 160 minutes that Scott devotes to Bonaparte feel well-spent, but considering how dramatic and eventful this life was, perhaps it would have been served better as a series, rather than a film.
Napoleon is the second lavish Apple production that we’ve got after Killers of the Flower Moon (2023). Both are prestige projects that are neither strictly commercial (despite getting theatrical releases) nor are they suitable for the small screen (even though Apple TV+ is their ultimate home). Neither film is the best example of these celebrated directors’ work, though Martin Scorsese’s retelling of a lesser-known period of modern American history is far more accomplished than what Scott has managed in Napoleon. Yet for all their differences, there are also similarities between these two projects. Both go for an epic sensibility and tackle historical subjects. Both films benefit from an electric performance by a woman actor whose supporting role radiates main character energy despite limited screen time. Both have grumpy 49-year-old men as their protagonists and neither film seems to be able to decide whether these men are heroes or villains. Both are made by directors who are legendary in their own right, with little to prove and even less at risk because their stature usually commands immediate adoration rather than critique or even questions. One can’t help but wonder how much more enriched the entertainment scene would be if producers like Apple lavished their moneys on upcoming talent rather than the old guard.