Great Battle Scenes, But Little Else In Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon’


The new Ridley Scott movie Napoleon is an OK film. That is unfortunate. I was hoping for a blockbuster, maybe even a classic. Scott has managed that before. Gladiator and Blade Runner are brilliant. But this film just sort of wanders from battle scene to battle scene with large swaths of soap opera in between. It tries for biography, but there are so many different elements of the man’s life, and they don’t always mesh. We can see the stoic general, and then the almost naïve state leader, mixed in with a buffoonish strain as lover. At no time do we really understand Napoleon, the man.

France was a mess in 1794 as the film begins. Toulon, the major Mediterranean port, is dominated by the English. Corsican captain Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) is called on to fix the problem. And in a brilliant battle scene, he takes the fort overlooking the harbor and uses its cannons to shatter the British fleet. He is made a brigadier general and brought to Paris. Napoleon really stands out as one of the grumpiest men around, and seemed to stand out mostly for the tricorn hart he wore and almost never took off.

Along the way, he meets beautiful widow Josephine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby), who becomes the great love of his life. They marry, and she joins him as he rises in rank, assisted by Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim), an ambitious politician who does not realize how ambitious Napoleon is. And while this is going on, Josephine accepts his poor qualities as lover. When he goes off to Egypt, she even takes up with another man. Napoleon returns early, which leads to a mini-revolt that pushes him to completely take over, at the start as “first consul” and then “emperor.” Josephine is the perfect partner, except she does not bear him children.

And the battles go on. Scott is at his best here. They seem to be based on actual human stunt work rather than CGI, and they work very well. They are among the best all-human, non-CGI battle scenes ever. But in between, we have the soap opera of Napoleon’s life. I grant you that most of what we see and hear is based on fact, but when drawn down to the need to get to the next battle, Napoleon seems as crude as his enemies see him, and pretty brutal to Josephine. As a result, the film is really uneven; battle scenes great, soap opera tiresome.

Phoenix does not give a brilliant performance. I actually wondered as my mind wandered during the film whether he thought wearing that hat was enough. He worked hard to underplay his feelings; so much that occasionally he wore his battle face while in his more intimate scenes. Kirby, on the other hand, was marvelous. She managed to keep her sense of vulnerability throughout. She sparkled, she played with Napoleon when called to, and she dealt with some of the more horrifying moments with dignity. Most of the other characters in the film were essentially almost cardboard in nature or caricatures.

So what should be done with the film? Parts are brilliant. I was mesmerized by some of the battle scenes. The disastrous Russian invasion was well done. But they take up less than half the running time of the film. We see nothing about the vast changes he made in France as part of his rule. There is little shown of the greatness of this “great man.” Instead, we get a poorly conducted love story with a very weak man, one who is at his core willing to abuse the woman he adores. And that damages this very long film.

If you’re really into battles, this film might be for you. It should be noted that French critics, who presumably know more about the man’s history, generally denounced the film. But it is a decent biographical film at a time when few are made. Was it worth the price of admission? Sorta. But I like history. If you’re not into that, you should wait for it at home.