|A young French military captain seizes the throne of France and becomes a charismatic military genius, an emperor, and an enemy to all the great powers of Europe.
|2 hours, 38 minutes
|November 22, 2023
|AppleTV+, Columbia Pictures
|Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby
The last twenty years of Ridley Scott’s career have been turbulent. One can hardly complain that Hollywood has repeatedly given him opportunities to make epic, ambitious, original, and thoughtful blockbusters. Unfortunately, the quality of his films has fluctuated heavily. He has made great films like The Martian, All The Money In The World, and The Last Duel, and terrible films like Robin Hood, House Of Gucci, and Exodus: Gods and Kings. He’s also made bizarre and controversial films like The Counselor and Alien: Covenant.
Ridley Scott is certainly one of the greatest directors of our time, responsible for masterpieces like Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down, but he is inconsistent and often chooses projects that are bizarre, confusing, or poorly thought through. As a result, his late-career attempt to dramatize the life of Napoleon Bonaparte has equally created excitement and nervousness among his fans.
Violence/Scary Images: The movie frequently depicts 19th-century warfare, with characters being brutally stabbed, shot, blown apart, drowned, or otherwise killed, with blood and gore present throughout the film.
Language/Crude Humor: Severe language throughout including f*** and s***.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters regularly drink alcohol together.
Sexual Content: Sex and adultery are a repeated motif in the narrative, with several graphic partially nude sex scenes depicted throughout the film. Many female characters wear low-cut and revealing clothing.
Spiritual Content: Many of the characters are implicitly Catholic, with churches and sacraments being mentioned throughout the film at odd points. Napoleon briefly defies the Catholic Church by ceasing the crown of France and crowning himself and his wife, rather than the Bishop.
Other Negative Content: Frequent violent and sexual content throughout the movie.
Positive Content: Themes of love, honor, and one’s place in history.
Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the most fascinating historical figures to come out of the last two centuries, and a large part of the reason why simply comes down to the fact that he is not so easily defined or categorized. There are admirers and critics of the French leader from every side of the aisle, viewing him as a tyrant, enlightenment stalwart, great man of history, secularizer, military genius, butcher, brute, conquerer, and uniter. He believed himself to be the embodiment of France, and many in the country adored him for bringing the nation together after the events of the French Revolution.
Any adaptation or presentation of his life is thus going to bump into the bias of whoever is depicting him. It probably says something that the greatest cinematic masterpiece of his life is the English-Soviet co-production Waterloo, which primarily focuses on the military logistics of his final military defeat in a specific moment of his life, narrowing the range of opinion to the historical facts as they existed in a highly documented battle. Conversely, many adaptations focus on other aspects of his life, such as Marlon Brando’s depiction of his love life in Désirée. Many films simply give him minor roles, such as War And Peace, Love And Death, and Bill And Ted.
It thus becomes fascinating that the great and mighty Sir. Ridley Scott has chosen to set his sights on the man in the latter stages of his filmmaking career. As the 86-year-old director discussed in one of his recent interviews, “He came out of nowhere to rule everything—but all the while he was waging a romantic war with his adulterous wife Joséphine. He conquered the world to try to win her love, and when he couldn’t, he conquered it to destroy her, and destroyed himself in the process.”
The film cannot be said to be fully for or against Napoleon, ideologically speaking. It is full of ideas and nuances that portray the man with a relativistic image. It must be said though that Scott is not a director known for historically accurate renditions of history. He is very well known for editorializing in his movies—wrongly depicting Marcus Aurelius being directly murdered in Gladiator, depicting the Crusaders as unabashedly evil, children slaughtering thugs in Kingdom of Heaven, depicting the God of the Old Testament as a petulant child in Exodus: Gods and Kings, and completely rewriting the complicated history of The Last Duel into a #MeToo metaphor.
Scott makes epic and entertaining films but he always relaxes historical accuracy at the altar of storytelling—never ceasing to take an opportunity to spin a good yarn about atheism, feminism, enlightenment whiggishness, or whatever political issue he feels the desire to wax philosophically about.
Unfortunately, the problem with discussing Scott’s Napoleon in any meaningful way is that Scott has already said the version that has escaped to theaters is an abridged cut. The director’s cut—which is set to release on AppleTV+—is said to be two hours longer than the cut I saw, which could render most of my criticism moot. As it stands, the 2.5-hour theatrical cut feels rushed and lacks cohesion. Character motivations are left on the cutting room floor and major events are trimmed down to the bone to fit twenty-two years of Napoleon’s life into a shorter narrative. And I cannot tell at this time how much of this is the fault of the editor or the screenwriter.
What we do have is a movie that doesn’t seem to think very positively of Napoleon Bonaparte. As Scott’s quote suggests, his adulterous love life with Empress Joséphine is intercut with his military victories and political career and draws a clear parallel between the two—intermittently painting the man as a brutish, impulsive, sexually entitled lout and a stoic genius who believes he is the metaphysical embodiment of France.
Scott seems to think this is par for the course as far as a depiction of Napoleon is going to be. As he states in some of his interviews, Napoleon is both a great and terrible man. He believes that the effort to cease power in the way that Napoleon did requires intronic evil and brutality, and that both of those things need to be contrasted with one another.
In many ways, Napoleon feels like a natural companion piece to The Last Duel. The relationship between Joséphine and Napoleon is the primary dramatic core of the story and drives much of the plot, nearly relegating his military victories as distractions from his turbulent love life and repeated affairs. At one point, the film even suggests he returned from exile merely to reconquer his wife after she took a lover in his absence.
These themes of sexual insecurity, ego, and toxic masculinity echo Scott’s prior film in their portrayal of male entitlement, patriarchal systems of control, and the nature of truth, and add the caveat of this lurid codependent relationship into the mixture to explore how these ideas flow out of great men and affect the world.
Regardless, this portrayal is more telling about Scott than it is about Napoleon. The film as it currently exists is a hot mess that desperately needs a director’s cut, and may well prove to be a solid watch after the fact. Even so, this is a curious way to present Napoleon’s life, particularly in modernity when his life echoes with themes that are relevant to us—from cult of personality politicians to the battle of religion and secular authority and the ethics of imperialism. The true masterpiece about Napoleon’s life is yet to be made or released.
+ Epic scope and massive cast
+ Excellent battle scenes
+ Beautiful cinematography and production design
- Strange Joaquin Phoenix performance
- Poor script/editing
- Rushed plot
- Questionable historical accuracy
The Bottom Line
The theatrical cut of Napoleon is rushed, messy, and severely flawed, and it remains to be seen if the larger director's cut will improve on these issues. It remains a compelling and fascinating movie, but also a lurid and bizarre rendition of the life of the charismatic French leader.