Despite Some Lapses, Ridley Scott Delivers with ‘Napoleon’
Ridley Scott has etched his name on the list of filmmakers whose projects are consistently engaging and worthy of attention. His directorial credits include beloved classics like Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Thelma & Louise (1991), and the Best Picture winner Gladiator (2009). Now, returning to the historical epic genre and collaborating with his All the Money in the World writer, David Scarpa, Scott embarks on a journey into the life and legend of Napoleon Bonaparte. However, this legend is complex, as Napoleon is revered in France but viewed differently in England.
Despite the plethora of books written about Napoleon, most of us still possess only a rudimentary understanding of the man, despite his intricate legacy. One would assume that a movie spanning a quarter century, with a runtime of 2 hours and 38 minutes, would adequately fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, the result is a captivating yet somewhat chaotic narrative. It excels in its portrayal of battle scenes but falls short in most other aspects.
This is particularly disappointing given the film’s attempt to navigate Napoleon’s brilliance as a military leader, the intricate politics of the era, and his enigmatic relationship with Josephine de Beauharnais.
Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix (Joker, 2019) takes on the role of Napoleon, with the exceptional Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman and the White Widow in the two most recent Mission Impossible movies) co-starring as Josephine. It’s hard not to wonder how this film would have fared without such talented leads. Nevertheless, for many viewers, there remains a certain detachment from Napoleon and Josephine, as the depth of their connection never quite comes into sharp focus.
Director Scott opens the film with a powerful scene of Marie Antoinette (Catherine Walker) making her way to the guillotine in 1789, amidst the enraged masses. Sound effects and the executioner’s final act add to the chilling realism. Following this gripping sequence, a young Napoleon embarks on his quest for battlefield victories, military promotions, increased power, and a male heir.
The battle scenes are undeniably epic and visually stunning, rivaling any seen on the big screen. Two standout moments include the 1793 Siege of Toulon, which illustrates the brutality of war and showcases Napoleon’s strategic genius, and the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz, or the Battle of the Three Emperors, featuring remarkable footage on and beneath a frozen lake. These sequences are interspersed with glimpses of Napoleon’s conquests in Egypt in 1798 and the Coup of 1799. With each triumph, Napoleon’s power grows, culminating in his declaration as Emperor. Director Scott and director of photography Dariusz Wolski shine in this segment, faithfully recreating Jacques-Louis David’s iconic painting of the coronation.
Unable to produce a male heir, Josephine is ultimately cast aside and divorced. However, their correspondence forms a significant part of the film’s narrative, even after their separation. The movie depicts the 1812 invasion of Russia and Napoleon’s subsequent exile to the Isle of Elba, from where he escaped after a year to regain power in France. As history tells us, Napoleon’s story concludes with his defeat at the hands of the Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett) in his literal Waterloo, followed by a second exile to St. Helena, where he passed away at the age of 51 in 1821.
Rumors abound of Ridley Scott’s director’s cut, which is said to be an additional two hours in length and is reportedly heading to AppleTV+ in January. While this extended runtime may seem daunting, Napoleon’s tumultuous life, with its 61 battles and over 3 million deaths, deserves a more comprehensive retelling than what this theatrical version provides. For those quick to point out historical inaccuracies, Ridley Scott has made his response abundantly clear.