Napoleon Is as Ambitious and Flawed as the French Emperor Himself

Photo: courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Oppenheimer has either ruined biopics going forward or paved a path for them to succeed. In the hands of any other filmmaker, the $950+ million blockbuster would’ve been a boring and competent slog made for the Academy Awards. Oppenheimer flips the idea of a biopic on its feet by being a thriller, a heist movie, and a science-fiction-esque epic all at once. Essentially, Christopher Nolan made one of the best biopics of all time by not making one. Ridley Scott’s over-stuffed and fascinating Napoleon finds itself in the middle of the genre: it’s not as interesting or unique as Oppenheimer but is nowhere near as bland as something like The King’s Speech

Which is to say, when Napoleon takes chances and pushes the envelope, it is amongst the best movies of the year. But, as fun and engrossing as the unconventional parts are, the 157-minute blockbuster is bogged down by substantial portions of choppy editing, inconsistent tone, and a dry script. It’s a real roller coaster where the highs are high and the lows are frustrating. There are flourishes of greatness and sequences of pure banality. In other words, this is an all-out Ridley Scott movie, for better and for worse. 

Napoleon chronicles the rise and fall of French leader Napoleon Bonaparte in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As Marie Antoinette (Catherine Walker) is sent to the guillotine, shrewd and cunning military commander Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) uses his success in battles to rise the ranks and eventually become the emperor of France. Along the way, he marries the beautiful Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). But, history will take its course, and Napoleon leads himself on a path to destruction. 

Napoleon looks disgruntled in the cold forrest with snow all over him.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon Bonaparte in Napoleon. Photo: courtesy of Sony Pictures.

All the trailers and marketing of Napoleon will have you believe this is a traditional historical epic in the vein of Gladiator. And, for the most part, it’s not; it’s infinitely weirder than that. Instead of valorizing Napoleon, Scott decides to humiliate the notorious figure absolutely. He doesn’t do this by making height jokes (of which there are maybe one or two) but directs Phoenix to give a truly pathetic performance. Scott has no respect for Napoleon and makes him a complete loser—and this aspect of the movie rocks.

It almost feels like Scott is making his version of Barry Lyndon. Napoleon is someone who sees Marie Antoinette getting her head chopped off and has an expression that literally screams “head empty, no thoughts.” It’s not a menacing look by any means, it’s just that he could not care less about all the hoopla. Scott takes this to another level by showing Napoleon falling asleep when politician Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim) is discussing war tactics. This is not someone who was complicated or had demons that haunted him, according to Scott. He’s a fool, a clown whose ambition was too big for his diminutive intelligence. 

This is where Napoleon feels transgressive in the vein of Oppenheimer, where you haven’t seen anything like this. The odd character study is so amusing and hilarious, the movie flies by. Sure, the tone is jarring but it makes for such an interesting watch. A lot of credit has to go to Phoenix’s performance. I wasn’t initially connecting with it: I felt the deadpan approach was mismatched with Scott’s vision of an epic. Once Scott plays his card and delves into the wackiness, the performance works extremely well. It all feels purposeful and it ends up being one of Phoenix’s best performances. His line deliveries are golden whether it be, “Destiny has brought me this lamb chop!” or “You think you’re so great because you have boats!” Scott wanted to show Napoleon as a stupid man-child and Phoenix is up to the task and more. 

Napoleon gets close to Josephine and whispers something in her ear as she covers her mouth.
Napoleon and Josephine’s dynamic is the highlight of the movie. Photo: courtesy of Sony Pictures.

But, this hilarious character humiliation is spliced with a boring historical drama that prevents Napoleon from reaching the S-tier. Look, I understand there’s a four-hour cut of the movie coming out that I’m sure is undoubtedly better because you can clearly see the editing seams. In the theatrical version, the movies that Scott meshed together just don’t flow at all. The editing is erratic and the pacing is all over the place. At times, the movie is absolutely accelerating and, immediately, the next scene could have a drastically different tone and tediously slow down the movie. When speaking of tone, it’s not detrimental Napoleon has a wacky tone in parts of the film, it’s that Scott doesn’t commit fully to it. He’s unable to balance conventionality with unconventionality, and it’s this imbalance of tone that’s frustrating. 

Long movies can feel short if there it is paced well and Napoleon is not. Killers of the Flower Moon feels exhilarating mostly due to Thelma Schoonmaker’s expert editing which results in excellent pacing. Most of Napoleon’s second half is in search of an identity. Scott doesn’t have a grasp on the movie he’s making and, as a result, the film moves at the rate of molasses. There are some fantastic and stand-out sequences, but they rarely work together as a complete product. The four-hour cut certainly has more form to it but at what point do we keep using the director’s cut excuse for films? If Scott felt the four-hour cut of Napoleon was the movie he envisioned, then that should’ve been released. The current theatrical version feels simultaneously gargantuan and hollow. 

It’s also been reported that the four-hour cut has more Josephine in it, which this current cut severely needed. As good as Phoenix is, Kirby steals the whole show as the mysterious and witty Josephine. Scott’s humiliation of Napoleon doesn’t stop at minor quirks, he takes to another level with Napoleon and Josephine’s wildly entertaining psychosexual dynamic. In an ideal world, Napoleon is just two hours of Phoenix and Kirby cooking with one to two battle scenes. Every scene the pair share is laugh-out-loud funny as they say horrendous things to one another and play mind games. It’s an incredibly toxic relationship with infidelity and gaslighting abound and, once their scenes end, you’re just waiting for Kirby to re-enter the screen. I’d also like to see Scott’s version of a Josephine film because she’s clearly the more interesting character and Kirby plays her with such confidence, elegance, and viciousness. 

Josephine looks mischievous in a dim-lit room wearing classic, elegant French outfit and jewelry.
Vanessa Kirby steals every scene she’s in. Photo: courtesy of Sony Pictures.

The one conventional trope Scott employs that works well is staging breathtaking and stunning battle sequences. For all my issues with Napoleon, these graphic and brutal scenes are worth the price of admission and are only more impressive when you find out that Ridley Scott is 85 going on 86. Scott doesn’t shy away from violence and there are decapitations, tons of blood, and a decent amount of horses being mauled. The highlight of Napoleon is the astounding Austerlitz sequence where Napoleon lured the opposing forces on a frozen lake. It’s such an intense scene—one of the year’s best—that I found myself needing a moment to catch my breath. The visuals are horrifying yet ravishing and Scott is 100% in his bag when directing and choreographing the battle scenes. 

Scott’s past three films—The Last Duel, House of Gucci, and Napoleon—are such an intriguing artifact. Stylistically different, but thematically similar in that he’s exploring the idiocy of affluent Europeans and having zero interest in glorifying his protagonists. I’m all for this exploration (and I quite like all three of these movies) but virtually all of them have the same issues: editing and pacing. Scott always has great ideas and terrific style but his execution of the final product is always a crapshoot. Sometimes you get one of the best movies of all time (Alien, Blade Runner) or you can get one of the worst (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Robin Hood). The middle group is the most frustrating because it’s not good enough to be in the elite tier but not bad to be in the trash tier. It’s a situation of missed opportunity.

Napoleon is firmly in this middle group. It’s definitely worth a watch because there are some flashes of greatness that Ridley Scott can only do. The portions of the movie that are bold and subvert your expectations are an absolute delight and will have you shocked at how much you are genuinely laughing. Ultimately though, you’ll leave the theater marveling at the spectacle but wanting more from the execution. Napoleon isn’t all too different from its eponymous figure: full of potential and flourishes of strength but falls short of what it could have been. 

Written by Aqib Rasheed

AQIB RASHEED is a staff writer at Film Obsessive. Member of the Chicago Indie Critics and served as the Resident Film Critic for the Loyola Phoenix from 2021-2022. An admirer of movies, old and new, from all over the world. President of the Al Pacino and David Fincher fan clubs.

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