Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is visually splendid but doesn’t explore the complexity of France’s most famous emperor.
He founded the First French Empire. Historically, he is celebrated for his political reforms while condemned for his role in wars that killed millions. Who is Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Corsican artillery officer who became one of the most powerful and feared men in European history? Ridley Scott’s ambitious biopic narrates Napoleon’s life from his phenomenal rise to power to his Waterloo downfall, with a focus on his stormy relationship with Joséphine de Beauharnais.
In a scene after the Waterloo defeat, Napoleon Bonaparte heartily enjoys an English breakfast and remarks to the Duke of Wellington that he now understands why Britain’s navy is so strong—it’s because of great breakfasts. With open disdain, the Iron Duke ignores the compliment and informs Napoleon that he barely escaped execution. For the rest of his life, the defeated emperor will also live in exile on the remote island of St. Helena, an island that is essentially a rock in the middle of nowhere.
This brief scene serves several purposes, if I interpreted it correctly. Other than being a full stop for the main story, it aims to please viewers by throwing together two of the most legendary military commanders in history; leaders who’ve never actually met in real life, by the way. Going by Napoleon’s almost nonchalant response to his final fate, I say director Ridley Scott probably also intended the scene to be the concluding stroke in what is supposedly his layered interpretation of the Emperor. The director seems to be suggesting that though prideful, Napoleon Bonaparte was a true gentleman capable of accepting defeat with grace.
It’s a good denouement, for a start, it’s a necessary breather after the carnage that is the Battle of Waterloo. The serenity of the setting also puts a full stop to the movie’s long series of battle scenes.
The problem, though. Napoleon’s stoic disposition during these moments is similar to how he was during the earliest chapter of the show, i.e., when his brother proposed that he lead the Siege of Toulon. The similarity then starkly reminded me that despite nearly three hours of visual grandeur and pageantry, I’m neither more familiar nor more knowledgeable about the titular character. Actually, I can’t even say I care a little bit more because the man was uniformly so aloof throughout.
The show just doesn’t venture beyond depicting Napoleon Bonaparte as some sort of brooding military genius, you see. A genius who, somehow, became popular and powerful enough to be crowned emperor, and who somehow just kept winning battles till Waterloo. The story doesn’t explore the man’s beliefs, values, or true ambitions either. Most of the non-battle moments focus on Napoleon’s almost obsessive love for Joséphine de Beauharnais, which while entertaining, ultimately offered little insight into the man’s true character.
And while more or less chronologically accurate, one can’t say that this movie is a true biopic. It’s more accurately, an introduction of the Napoleonic Era or the First French Empire.
To be fair, these flaws are perhaps only to be expected. One of the most complex personalities of the early modern era, Napoleon Bonaparte’s deeds are as celebrated as they are condemned. While directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions, this was the man who championed the Napoleonic Code, important French civic law reforms that are still a key basis for modern governance. It is also worth noting that the man is still highly regarded among some segments of the French.
In view of this, Ridley Scott is perhaps right to focus his best efforts on creating grandiose battlefield scenes, rather than story complexity. The battlefield scenes, by the way, are easily the best moments of the movie. Meticulously composed, lit, and tinted, these scenes instantly reminded me of massive paintings I’ve seen in the Louvre and similar museums.
These are the scenes that had me seated upright in awe. They are also the ones that made me inclined to forgive the stumbling story.
Historical Accuracy & Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte
Lengthy articles about glaring historical inaccuracies have been published, and continue to be published, since the release of Napoleon in November. The movie’s many creative liberties with characters and events have also resulted in harsh criticism by historians.
I feel some of the criticism is overly hysterical, though. I’ve mentioned this before in reviews for movies like Mary Queen of Scots. I don’t watch epic blockbusters for academic learning and I frankly think anyone who does so is … rather silly and needs to be advised. In other words, for me, creative rewriting in the spirit of better dramaticism and artistic liberty is part and parcel of cinematic entertainment. If you want to study real history, then the onus is on you to do proper research.
The above said, some of the inaccuracies in Napoleon are admittedly rather overboard, unnecessary, or meaninglessly provocative, the clearest example being the now-notorious cannon attack on the Pyramids scene. Still, should one just gulp down everything that’s shown in a movie, especially, a commercial movie? I think the answer is obvious.
Moving on to Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, as much as I love his other movies, I regret to say he might not have been ideal as the lead character. He looks the part during later chapters, for sure. He effortlessly delivers a chilly arrogance one would be inclined to associate with Napoleon too. But beyond that, Joaquin just feels too weathered and world-weary.
Oh never mind, I’ll just say it out loud at the risk of being labelled ageist. I feel Joaquin is simply too old for the role. The real Napoleon was 24 during the Siege of Toulon, 35 when he was crowned emperor, and 51 when he died at St. Helena. Joaquin is 49 this year, just a year younger when the movie was filmed. There was also no effort to make him appear younger in earlier scenes.
The end impression is as if everything within the movie happened within one or two years. That is as wrong as it gets.
Check out my other snappy movie reviews.