Producers: Ridley Scott, Kevin J. Walsh, Mark Huffam and Joaquin Phoenix Director: Ridley Scott Screenplay: David Scarpa Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Mark Bonnar, Rupert Everett, Youssef Kerkour, Ian McNeice, Ben Miles, Paul Rhys, Ludivine Sagnier, Edouard Philipponnat, Matthew Needham, Catherine Walker, Gavin Spokes, Anna Mawn, Davide Tucci, Sam Crane, Scott Handy and Sam Troughton Distributor: Columbia/Apple TV+
Though he’s a fascinatingly controversial historical figure, Napoleon Bonaparte has not fared well on screen. Probably the most remarkable biographical effort until now was Abel Gance’s eponymous 1927 epic, but it was actually more notable technically than qualitatively (and, in any event, was only partial despite its length, reaching only to 1796). Among later pictures in which he was more than a peripheral figure, only Henry Koster’s 1954 “Désirée” remains memorable, not because it’s much good but because of Marlon Brando’s performance. Indeed, the most enjoyable of the crowd was Alan Taylor’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (2001), a lighthearted piece of revisionism with Ian Holm repeating his Bonaparte, which he’d previously offered in Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits.” One can only wonder what Stanley Kubrick might have achieved in his long-planned but abandoned treatment.
Steven Spielberg reportedly plans to realize Kubrick’s vision as a mini-series—his “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001), of course, was based on an original Kubrick treatment—but until that project sees the light of day, Ridley Scott holds the field with his two-and-a-half-hour film (though he’s already said that he’s preparing a four-hour version for Apple TV+). Unhappily, even in this “short” form Scott’s “Napoleon” is a turgid bore, visually sumptuous but dramatically inert except for some well-executed battle sequences.
Where Gance chose to omit everything after Napoleon’s arrival at the bedraggled army of Italy, presuming that audiences would know what followed his enormous successes on the peninsula and what they led to, Scott instead chooses to lop off everything before 1789—Napoleon’s childhood in Corsica and his training and service in pre-revolutionary Paris; he also avoids mention of Napoleon’s brief engagement in 1795-96 to Désirée Clary, the later Queen of Sweden, that Koster’s film focused on.
Instead David Scarpa’s screenplay begins by concentrating on Napoleon’s (Joachin Phoenix) alliance with politician Paul Barras (Tahar Barras) and his masterly strategy at the Siege of Toulon in 1793, which made him a major figure after the fall of Robespierre (Sam Troughton) and the end of the Reign of Terror in 1794. It then proceeds, like an illustrated Wikipedia entry, through some of the more notable episodes in his political-military career, among them his role in the so-called 13 Vendémiaire, the crushing of a royalist uprising that led to the contentious establishment of the Directory; the transformation of the Directory into the Consulate, with Napoleon its titular head; the Egyptian campaign, particularly the so-called Battle of the Pyramids of 1798; his self-coronation as emperor in 1804; the battle of Austerlitz in 1805; the ill-conceived 1812 invasion of Russia, and the catastrophic retreat with which it ended; his resignation and exile to Elba; his escape and the resultant Battle of Waterloo; and his exile and death in St. Helena.
Obviously Scarpa’s choice of what to include is selective, omitting much of significance, and within the various episodes, presented as rather solemn gut beautifully appointed tableaux, captions are used to indicate what’s being depicted and, often, to indicate the other personages involved. There are also occasional divergences from historical accuracy that will bother scholars more than the general public (no, Napoleon didn’t order his cannons to fire on the pyramids).
Some of the sequences are nonetheless impressive. Among the battles, the Toulon siege is expertly done, showing Napoleon’s strategic skill in a way the others don’t; the 13 Vendémiaire melee has a “Les Misérables” quality fans of the musical will appreciate; and the frozen Satschan Ponds retreat at Austerlitz gives Scott the opportunity to stage a nifty homage to the battle on the ice in Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky.” But even they are weighed down by the stolidity of Phoenix’s performance. He doesn’t project much of Napoleon’s inner life, leaving us to intuit that he’s a man driven to prove himself because of his (regrettably omitted) obscure background and his sense of being underestimated and disrespected as a result. He does wake up in some of the connective material depicting speculative diplomatic conversations with underlings like Talleyrand (Paul Rhys) or rivals like Tsar Alexander I (Edouard Philipponnat), or invented confrontations like the one with the Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett, supremely effete and smug) after Waterloo.
He also perks up considerably in the other half of the picture, the portrayal of his fraught marriage to Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby), episodes in which are periodically juxtaposed with the surrounding narrative. Here too there are questionable elements, like tying Napoleon’s abandonment of the the Egyptian campaign simply to reports of her infidelity. But generally the tempestuous tone of the relationship is caught, even if Scarpa and Scott take it to extremes in scenes like the one in which Napoleon, arguing over dinner with his wife about their inability to have a child, utters the immortal line: “Destiny has brought me this lamb chop!” (presumably intended as a joke). Kirby brings an arrogant vivacity to Josephine, as well as a sorrowful resignation when Napoleon divorces her to take a new wife who might provide him with an heir, and does (though the boy disappears from the film after his infancy, though not from history).
As is clear, Scott covers a lot of ground, but doesn’t go very deep beneath the surface. One never finds much depth in the characterizations; they’re like players in a historical pageant. Yet the surface is opulent and elegant. It would be difficult to overpraise the work of production designer Arthur Max or costumers Janty Yates and Dave Crossman, or the visuals—both interior and exterior—fashioned by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, which deserve to be savored to optimal effect on the big screen rather than the smaller ones it will soon arrive on. The special effects supervised by Neil Corbould and visual effects overseen by teams headed by Charley Henley, Henry Badgett, Luc-Ewen Martin-Fenouillet and Simone Coco are integrated well into the live action footage (as in the burning of Moscow sequence), while editors Claire Simpson and Sam Restivo manage to keep the disjointed narrative flowing reasonably smoothly. And Martin Phipps’ score is grandiose without getting too bombastic (with some period pieces nicely used, as in the coronation scene).
But despite all the polish and attention to detail, “Napoleon” is hamstrung by a failure to bring its subject to life any better than the films by Robert Rossen and Oliver Stone about Alexander the Great, the conqueror Bonaparte aspired to surpass, did. Maybe Kubrick via Spielberg will crack the Napoleonic puzzle, but Scott’s attempt to do so proves a losing battle.