Napoleon (dir. Sir Ridley Scott)

By: Adam Freed

It is fitting that Napoleon, the epic story of an emperor who embodies the grandeur of the French empire only to fall victim to hubris and excess, is chronicled in a film that achieves laudable heights, yet is wounded by the glaring ego of its own production.  To be partially shielded from this criticism is director, Sir Ridley Scott. The octogenarian filmmaker proves that although he may no longer quilt together the complexities of an epic with the ease of old, his eye for the glories of cinematic scope is still as keen as ever.  Scott, (Alien, Gladiator) heralded for his unrivaled aptitude for capturing complex visual environments on a macro scale, certainly lives up to his well earned billing.  It is the presumed battle to preserve the filmmaker’s comprehensive vision for Napoleon that may ultimately lead the theatrical cut of the film to wallow in exile.   

Napoleon lacks the necessary connective tissue to unite the sweeping battle set pieces that have become synonymous with Scott’s direction.  There is a chronological dedication to Bonaparte’s timeline that feels more a montage of early 19th Century European history than an attempt at story cohesion.  Scott’s cinematography does not disappoint as he paints the European landscape masterfully balancing the cool blues of the Russian tundra with warm golden Egyptian sands.  The unfortunate underbelly to this success is that Scott’s film feels as if it is edited by hatchet and often turns marvelous set pieces into momentary stops on the checklist of Bonaparte’s conquest.  It is a shame that audiences aren’t permitted to exist longer in worlds so delicately designed for consumption.  Napoleon feels confoundingly incomplete at 157 minutes, a rare anomaly to say the least, cemented by the reality that the film would be undeniably better served at four hours as opposed to two and a half.   

The diminutive historical giant is presented stoically by Joaquin Phoenix (The Master, Joker) edging closer to playfulness than to the somber oil on canvas depictions of Napoleon adorning the Louvre’s gallery walls.  Phoenix’s Bonaparte crackles to life when intertwined with his beloved Josephine.  Acting as both muse and miscreant is Vanessa Kirby, a sight to behold opposite the helplessly smitten Napoleon. Kirby (Mission Impossible: Fallout, The Crown) is another presumed victim of the aggressively edited film as she occupies far too little screen time given her notable impact.  Vanessa Kirby’s sly performance ignites the highest concentration of emotional dynamism from Phoenix’s Bonaparte.  Despite their intended lack of physical chemistry, it is the emotional weaponization of her love and lust that Josephine dangles before France’s emperor and breathes life into Scott's historical epic.  

Napoleon, a film that chronicles one of history’s greatest military tacticians is ironically outflanked on two fronts.  First, is the hovering suspicion that Apple Studios played far too influential a role in the editing of Ridley Scott’s film, prioritizing run time over story depth.  The crushing blow however in the prevention of Napoleon fulfilling its promise, is that the film burdens itself with scene upon scene of woefully uninspired dialogue.  Full marks to Kirby and Phoenix for maximizing their oratorical might despite wielding linguistic blades dulled in the weakness of their creation.  Despite the numerous commendable elements contained in Ridley Scott's Napoleon, the film is never able to overcome its glaring shortcomings in order to  be considered amongst the greats .

Target Score: 6/10 - Continental Europe came dangerously close to having spent the 19th century staring up at France’s tricolor flag.   The same may be said for Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, a promising film that, like its source material, comes close, but ultimately falls short of maximizing the greatness of its potential.