Genre: Drama and War Running Time: 2 hrs. 38 min.
Release Date: November 22nd, 2023 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ridley Scott Actors: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Rupert Everett, Tahar Rahim, Anna Mawn, Ian McNeice
fter the French Revolution escalates to the executions of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, ambitious young Corsican gunnery commander Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) spies an opportunity to advance. Appointed by commissioner Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim) to formulate a plan to capture the city of Toulon, Napoleon’s clever battle tactics lead to victory in the ensuing siege, and soon after a promotion to general. After quashing a royalist insurrection, the military strategist finds sudden fame, wealth, and favor with France’s new government, the Directory. Within this aristocratic lifestyle, Napoleon meets Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby), an enchanting widow with whom he instantly falls in love. As Bonaparte takes control of the Army of Italy and begins a series of highly successful military campaigns across Sardinia, Mantua, and eventually into Austria, his oftentimes contentious relationship with his wife “Josephine” continually pulls him back to France – where his quest for power will eventually find him crowned as an emperor.
Traditionalist director Ridley Scott (working from a script by David Scarpa) opts for pre-title credits, intercut with slow-motion shots and some graphic, gratuitous guillotining. It’s an apt way to muster an epic feel, especially since it’s reasonably well-publicized that this nearly 160-minute colossus will eventually see a four-hour director’s cut made available for streaming. With its cavernous sets, ornate costumes, extensive armory, countless extras, and period-specific music, the visual authenticity and awe are staggering – even if the accents and the lack of French actors in leading roles are obvious disregards toward greater genuineness.
It’s not long before big, bloody battles take center stage, making the most of castles, ships, cannons, rifles, sabers, bayonets, and more, going so far as to feature an unnecessarily gruesome horse demise. As these massive set pieces play out, the locations and players intermittently change, accompanied by onscreen titles to designate milestones. Yet despite the welcome chronological transition between years (presented with odd fade-to-white scene transitions), Scott doesn’t seem to care whether or not audiences will already be knowledgable enough to follow significant French junctures; traipsing through Toulon, the end of the Reign of Terror, a survivor’s ball, the Royalist insurrection, missions in Egypt, a coup d’état, and more (including, with an expected comprehensiveness, Elba and Waterloo, but with a glaring disinterest in Napoleon’s reforming policies and dealings with the United States and Haiti), all without decisive onsets and conclusions before moving on to the next venue, might leave viewers confused. Limited details for these various events will surely pose questions; notable outcomes routinely fail to show precisely what led to them.
In this same problematic vein, the “whys” of so many maneuvers are ignored; it’s difficult to get a sense of Napoleon as a strategic leader (he’s often considered one of the greatest of all commanders, regardless of his other controversies) when his motivations, intentions, and plans are so infrequently elucidated. Indeed, the focus is often on military losses rather than the reason why he was supported by the French army and the people, and why he’s still so prevalent today when speaking of war and conquerors. Rather than portraying him with sympathy, or as a revered warrior, his various battlefield conflicts tend to be shown with underwhelming zeal, plenty of violence, and a curious straightforwardness. There’s little emotion in his leadership; not once does he truly rally his troops.
“I’m not subject to petty insecurity.” Phoenix and Kirby are both exceptionally watchable, however, each lending a touch of humor and humanity when invested in the personal dramas of the emperor/empress relationship. Even here, it’s not entirely clear-cut just how influential Napoleon’s love or Josephine’s tolerance were in shaping political conquests, but their performances undoubtedly stand out, especially when a certain monotony from melees takes hold. There are only so many scenes of wartime fighting that can transpire before they grow fatiguing, regardless of the creativity in the bloodletting – of which a couple of moments exhibit some unusually stunning imagery.
By the end, “Napoleon” is something of a history lesson – pausing on major events without much speculation or commentary, offering a bit of artistry yet fleeting gusto. It’s well-made but generically designed, unfolding like an elementary biopic, boasting virtually no surprises. In its efforts to regale with grand recreations of famous historical happenings, it generally forgets to be consistently entertaining; viewers may learn a few things about the iconic galvanizer, but they’re not likely to remember them.
– The Massie Twins