Ridley Scott recently told historians calling out historical inaccuracies in Napoleon to “Get a life.” And that seemed to indicate that his big-screen adaptation of Napoleon’s story would be more concerned with the spirit of Napoleon’s history, reimagined to enthrall audiences, than the letter of it. But, though touted by trailers as a cinematic spectacle of massive scope, Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is simultaneously too much biopic to be a larger-than-life feature and not factual enough to deliver a compelling history. The movie is ultimately a focused meditation on Napoleon, one that thankfully doesn’t glorify him, but it fails to offer audiences any kind of interesting storyline or meaningful takeaway throughout its nearly three hours of runtime.
This is not a problem exclusive to Napoleon, but the overarching issue with imbuing any biopic with a compelling narrative is that a person’s life, even a person as objectively fascinating as Napoleon, is just their life. And that’s a fine thing to embrace. But Napoleon doesn’t really seem to believe itself to be recounting the history of a person and instead seeks to tell an epic of a larger scale. And in that, it does not succeed. Napoleon oscillates unevenly, and often abruptly, between massive battles (not all of which are engaging), a love story of sorts, and attempts at depicting historical events it isn’t really prepared to delve into fully. And that leaves viewers occasionally fascinated, sometimes confused, and unfortunately, more often than desired, bored.
The main structure of the film really highlights this issue. Napoleon‘s sprawling screen time divides itself into many small chapters, indicated to the audience with a chapter heading that literally appears on the screen to announce a new section. Each of these chapters revolves around a specific moment or battle in Napoleon’s life. But they rarely shift smoothly from one to the next. Napoleon jumps from being merely a successful general to being a key leader of France to crowning himself Emporer with little in the way of explanation of how he moves from one stage to the next.
It seems like any one of these periods and transitions might have made for a compelling movie. Instead, we rifle through Napoelon’s life like a flipbook, jumping in where Scott feels something particularly interesting has taken place. But, much like a flipbook, it’s hard to tell a story with meat on its bones in this fashion. While some moments end up shining, most are just a page passing by.
A particular bright spot, for instance, comes during Napoelon’s frozen winter battle of Austerlitz. In this sequence, you get a taste of the movie Napoleon aspires to be. The cinematography is stunning, the scope is epic, and the music is swelling. There’s cleverness in the characters and the storytelling. In this sequence, you feel drawn into Napoleon’s world and what it has to offer. But, unfortunately, the chapter turns, the moment recedes, and virtually none of the rest of the movie captures the same brilliance. It’s a strong note but swallowed in a sea of weak to moderately interesting ones.
For me, Napoleon fails as both a war movie and an epic history. It really works best when read as a film depicting the slow unraveling of a narcissist. I commend Scott for starting viewers at a point where Napoleon seems like yet another socially inept, self-important upstart and then gradually pulling back the curtain until the strong realization that he’s really a narcissistic psychopath hits hard. That throughline is well done. But while the movie certainly doesn’t seem to praise or glorify this aspect of Napoleon, it doesn’t very strongly condemn it either.
A title card at the end of the film points to the amount of deaths Napoleon has on his hands. And some of the battle sequences and political moments create the feeling that war is a confusing, harrowing experience played out at the whims of the powerful. But while we might know these things are true and terrible, both the dramatic title card and this feeling go largely unexamined in the movie itself. Instead, the movie holds tightly to Napoleon and his perspective of things. This choice doesn’t allow us to see the true impacts of his decisions and the larger context in which they play out. And so, if Napoleon‘s strongest points simply hover, stated, but not explored, what purpose, then, does this movie fulfill exactly?
Strangely, in this way, Napoleon is very much in conversation with the contemporaneously released The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Both movies elect to follow their nefarious leads as they reflectionlessly embark on their respective descents into blind ambition and their desires to dominate. But in both cases, this perspective narrows the scope of what the movies can thusly say about the characters, sticking largely to their perspectives of themselves and setting aside wider, more interesting explorations. The blood on Napoleon’s hands and the impact his wars and conquering efforts had on so many people, countries, and the world would have made for a fascinating exploration of the historical figure. Instead, Napoleon stays inside of Napoleon’s head, where there is no reflection possible.
The film does have some well-done battle sequences that fans of war movies will no doubt enjoy. (Although fair warning, horses are not treated very kindly in this movie. There is a very graphic scene of a horse getting a cannonball to its body very early on.) Napoleon also contains some lines that will no doubt be repeated for years to come. (“Destiny has brought me this pork chop.” “You (the British) think you’re so great because you have boats.”)
Of course, the acting is also steller. Joaquin Phoenix does a tremendous job embodying Napoleon in the movie. Vanessa Kirby, too, shines as the emperor’s much-tormented wife, Joséphine. And she is responsible for the scenes that have the most life and interest in them, aside from the battles that really land. There’s also a strange humor to the staging, dialogue, and overall energy of the movie’s scenes that mirror Napoleon’s character in an interesting way. And, as mentioned, at times, it does capture the imagination and draw the viewers in.
But ultimately, for a movie that does go on, Napoleon doesn’t have very much to say at all.