‘Napoleon’ Review: Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix Deliver a Film That Works Better as a Comedy Than a Historical Epic

Ridley Scott has never been shy about mocking the infinite smallness of man’s thirst for power (a tendency made all the more enjoyable by the cigar-chomping brio of a director who runs his sets like a rogue general in command of his own private army), but I still wasn’t prepared for the extent to which his latest film utterly humiliates one of history’s most ambitious rulers. 

Scott’s decision to reunite with Joaquin Phoenix should’ve been my first clue that “Napoleon” would be less than flattering of its namesake, as Phoenix’s turn as the sniveling boy-emperor in “Gladiator” paved the way for him to perfect the feral menace of male insecurity in films like “The Master” and that one where he played a mean clown. And then there’s the fact that several of Scott’s most recent efforts have offered unambiguous reminders of what he thinks about men who fly too close to the sun (“The Martian” and “Prometheus” both come to mind). But not even the shit-eating glee of Ben Affleck’s performance in “The Last Duel” suggested that Scott’s next epic would feel more like a comedy.

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Watching “Napoleon” — or at least the choppy and somewhat formless 157-minute version of it that will be released into theaters in advance of the much longer director’s cut that fans will invariably claim as a masterpiece at a later date — I couldn’t help but feel like Scott may have been caught off-guard himself. There’s no doubt he knew the film would be funny, but he seems to have been surprised by how far that funniness would take it, and/or unwilling to concede how little everything else would matter. 

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A stinging character study entombed within a sweeping epic that starts like a house on fire before stumbling through the climactic years of its subject’s life with all the grace and purpose of the Austrian army trying to flee Austerlitz, “Napoleon” works best whenever it reads the French emperor for filth, which it does early and often. So often, in fact, that David Scarpa’s acidly dry script never even bothers to poke fun at Napoleon’s diminutive height, at least not beyond a quick visual gag during the French army’s trip to Egypt — there’s no need for such cheapshots in a film that cuts Napoleon down to size in almost every other scene. 

Besides, most historians believe Napoleon was approximately 5’8,” and that the complex that bears his name was more of a posthumous fuck you than an actual cross to bear. Phoenix splits the difference, playing Monsieur Bonaparte like a human accordion whose size appears to shrink or expand by several feet within the span of a single scene (thus making his Napoleon a natural accompaniment to Martin Phipps’ free-reed score, which Scott often ditches in favor of repurposing the music that Dario Marianelli wrote for Joe Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice”). Phoenix almost never plays his character for comedy (this Napoleon is rarely in on the joke), and the movie around him supports that decision by having each member of its multinational cast talk in their natural speaking voices, so that all of the characters seem at home with themselves even when their country is turning against them. 

We first spot Napoleon in the crowd at Marie Antoinette’s execution, which he watches with the “I wonder what’s for dinner” energy of a man who literally falls asleep when Directory head Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim) talks to him about politics. The quasi-sociopathic Corsican is as resentfully bored by the Robespierre of it all as Mark Zuckerberg was by his freshman year math classes at Harvard; he’s a genius on the battlefield, but his gift for military tactics doesn’t translate when it comes to people he isn’t trying to kill. 

A British soldier makes the mistake of calling him a “shitbag” the night before the Siege of Toulon, which gives Napoleon all the gunpowder he needs to storm through the first of several high-velocity battle scenes, which do more to put some respect on the violence of late 18th century warfare than any movie since Roland Emmerich’s “The Patriot” (the siege kicks off with Napoleon’s horse taking a cannonball to the chest, and gets decapitation-happy from there). But when Napoleon spots his future empress Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) across a crowded room shortly after making his triumphant return to Paris, all he can do is stare at her like a creep. Later, when meeting the kids his crush had with her dead ex-husband, Napoleon can only mutter “My compliments to the chef of the family.” 

Not that Joséphine seems to mind such laugh-out-loud tactlessness. Kirby excels at playing strong women who shirk at the limits of their own power, and her underwritten Joséphine seems motivated by nothing but the desire to bring the world’s most ambitious man under her control; their chemistry-free courtship ends with her hiking up her dress, pointing to her vagina, and showing Napoleon “a secret” that he will never be able to keep. It’s enough to make you wish the movie would more fully commit to the psychosexual power games between these two dang-ass freaks, even if it doesn’t waste any time leveraging them into Napoleon’s debasement. 

Their sex scenes are played for laughs, as Scott mines the inherent hilarity of watching a future emperor furiously pound away at someone from behind, and the one between Joséphine and the lover she takes eight seconds after Napoleon leaves for Egypt are almost as funny; “Napoleon” is never more perceptive or illuminating than when it finds its title character fuming over the fact that his wife has naturally inherited a greater hold over him than he’s able to exert over Europe. And while Napoleon ultimately isn’t the reason why he and Joséphine are unable to conceive an heir, this movie also gives us several unforgettably sharp expressions of male impotence, none better than when a frustrated Napoleon turns to a British counterpart and snaps “You think you’re so great because you have BOATS!” 

We’ve been writing about this guy for more than 200 years, but Scott reduces him to just another loser who went to war over what he lacked in life and died with nothing else for company. His greatest victory finds him sitting on a throne covered in bird shit and then watching his enemies set fire to his prize. “Napoleon” is a portrait of the most pathetic of all great men, or perhaps the greatest of all pathetic ones, and it excels — when it excels — because it’s the rare historical epic that isn’t afraid to be embarrassed for its subject. 

It’s humbling enough to be a person, but it’s downright humiliating to want to be so much more; Napoleon’s thirst for strength makes his every weakness into a laughing stock (there’s more than a little Beau Wassermann to the way Phoenix wheezes and panics whenever Napoleon is in a bind, just as I saw flashes of John McEnroe every time he kicked something out of anger), and those weaknesses are all the more compelling because of how forthright this movie is about his strengths. He is a tactical genius, to a point, and he’s also a child at the mercy of his own wants. He is “bent on peace at any cost,” but it’s a peace that can only be brokered between his id and his superego — it has nothing to do with France.  

Unfortunately, this Ridley Scott epic about Napoleon Bonaparte does, in fact, have quite a lot to do with France, and as the invasion of Russia gives way to Napoleon’s divorce and subsequent exile to Elba, it struggles to intertwine his personal battles with his political ones. The epistolary sections never manage to sing with the raw passion of Napoleon and Joséphine’s actual letters to each other, and Napoleon’s standing in the French government begins to change so rapidly that I began to appreciate how he must have felt while listening to Paul Barras drone on about the matters of the day. 

Even if Scott hadn’t already promised a director’s cut of the movie, and even if the trailers hadn’t teased epic “Master and Commander”-worthy naval battles that are nowhere to be found in the theatrical version, it would still feel as if large and necessary chunks of “Napoleon” were missing at its current length. Napoleon loses any sense of agency as the movie enters its final third, and the great tactician — the author of his fortunes until the bitter end — begins to seem at their mercy. 

It’s a turn that can be measured by the movie’s gradual downslide from the light and lilting tone of its first half (which pokes fun at Napoleon by refusing to take him more seriously), to the dour sludginess of its second. Waterloo makes for a clear and terrific setpiece that’s almost on par with the digital spectacle that Scott creates from the cold death of Austerlitz, but by that point Napoleon’s outsized ambitions have been long subsumed by a film so lost in its epic sweep that it’s become the butt of its own, frequently scathing joke. 

Grade: B-

Apple TV and Sony Pictures Releasing will release “Napoleon” in theaters on Wednesday, November 22.

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