Napoleon was compelling — Ridley Scott’s movie is not

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With Ridley Scott’s Napoleon such a big gamble for Apple, so obviously rooted in history and exaggerated spectacle — and upsetting critics so successfully it’s got Scott swearing back at them — there are two important points to be aware of.

The first of those points is, unfortunately, simple: the critics are right. Napoleon is kind of dumb, a little boring and if not outright bad, at least not very good. 

The second, though, is thankfully a little bit more nuanced, and speaks to why Napoleon doesn’t work: it doesn’t play the Napoleon game. 

That game in question is simple: unravelling the question of who Napoleon really was, and what could have possibly motivated one of the most impactful historical figures of the last thousand years.

That game is also unwinnable. Trying to answer the question of what makes Napoleon tick has fuelled almost every bit of interest in his story, stretching back to when he was spewing muskets from Madrid to Moscow. It’s one of the only reasons to attempt to tell the story at all.

WATCH | The official Napoleon trailer: 

The best potential yin to Ridley Scott’s yang is another production sharing the same name: Abel Gance’s 1927 similarly big-budget, similarly overlong epic Napoleon.

While that film firmly interprets Napoleon as a great leader, casting everything from snowball fights to impromptu speeches as a way of understanding his inherent and selfless heroic motivations, Scott’s Napoleon doesn’t even bother to take the opposite stance. 

Instead of peeling back the curtain or attempting to explore the man behind the myth in any meaningful way, this Napoleon is more invested in blowing up a couple (though still too few) battles, and having Joaquin Phoenix reveal how deeply odd Napoleon’s behaviour was.

But having Phoenix scream at diplomats and moan loudly at his wife, Josephine, like a weird, perverted horse doesn’t do anything to show why Bonaparte did what he did. The most interesting possible route into a story about Napoleon is to show where his impulses came from, and why they led where they did. 

Director Ridley Scott, left, appears with Joaquin Phoenix in a behind-the-scenes photo from the set of Napoleon. (Apple TV)

Instead, Napoleon‘s biggest failure is a deep lack of curiosity over its mythic main character, that keeps us external from him at every turn.

The often ridiculous neuroses Phoenix adopts, along with an end sequence that adds up the total number of dead from all his campaigns, show Scott is at least trying to tear down the Bonaparte monument in the public consciousness. 

If he accomplished that, it would be worth the price of admission — and while it would still probably upset more than a few committed to his legend, it would have merit. There would be something to pick apart.

But Scott’s Napoleon functions more like a sideshow of loosely connected anecdotes; it’s shallow, and even if it committed itself to more than a few episodes of mildly exciting action it would still be boring for its lack of context.

While Phoenix’s American accent in a sea of British ones could be an allusion to Napoleon’s Corsican accent — a feature that embarrassingly showcased he was not born in France — Napoleon also doesn’t bother to explore where he’s from. 

Ending up as a monarch after starting out as a proponent of the Enlightenment could show how his ambitions were so at odds due to a lack of genuine conviction, but that’s left out. 

And that iconic ambition could have been undercut, if Scott and his writers had contrasted Napoleon’s demanding and incredibly strict mother, doubt over the identity of his actual father and a deep-seated compulsion to prove himself with forever and impossibly increasing military glory. 

A cavalry regiment charges into battle. The closest figure holds a sword in front of them.
A battle scene from Napoleon, one of the few visually exciting moments in the film. These carefully choreographed moments don’t make up for a general lack of character insight. (Apple TV)

Unintended comedy

Where that should be, in its place is potentially unintended comedy.

Truly bizarre line readings like “Destiny brought me this lamb chop,” and a line about a “succulent breakfast” seemingly lifted almost directly from a viral 1991 news segment are grotesquely entertaining for just a fraction of the total runtime. 

Well before the movie was halfway through, I was just hoping for Napoleon to end. It’s not due to a lack of loyalty to history: 2023’s biopic-choked slate of Oppenheimer, Blackberry, Priscilla and even Tetris have proven you can tell a good story even while playing fast and loose with the truth. 

What you do have to do is engage even the smallest bit with your subject’s internal life. Scott’s Napoleon does not. And when even Gance’s 1927 effort, now hailed as a masterpiece that innovated the industry and medium of filmmaking, failed so spectacularly it contributed to the destruction of his career, it will be interesting to see what happens to Scott.

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