It takes a certain kind of genius to ruin a film about Napoleon Bonaparte.
For crying out loud, this is the Corsican artillery commander who became the de facto emperor of continental Europe, the man who carried the French Revolution into Spain, Italy, Austria, and Germany, sparking the political movements that would culminate in the First World War.
This man doomed the Spanish empire, freeing Latin America from its rule and enabling the U.S. to double in size in the Louisiana Purchase. He did all this and found time to craft a law code on par with the Roman Emperor Justinian.
This man coopted an atheistic revolution, convinced the pope to come to Paris to crown him, and then, in a fit of pique, decided to crown himself instead.
Depending on your perspective, Napoleon smothered Europe with divisive passions or brought enlightenment to a backward continent. He either represents the apotheosis of the French Revolution or its ultimate betrayal.
So many moments in Napoleon’s life would make excellent standout films. The subject is an artist’s dream.
Yet somehow, director Ridley Scott managed to make this quintessentially enigmatic historical figure drop-dead boring. He produced a film about Napoleon that more closely resembles Joaquin Phoenix’s petulant and contemptible Emperor Commodus from Scott’s “Gladiator” (2000) than the actual French emperor.
Having loved “Gladiator,” I mistakenly grasped onto the vain hope that my friends’ dire warnings that “Napoleon” had gone amiss. After all, how bad can it be? This is a movie about Napoleon, and I was doomed to watch it, no matter what anyone said.
Yet, a few minutes into the movie, I found myself hoping it would end.
The film has a strong—albeit gruesome—start with the execution by guillotine of Marie Antionette, the notorious wife of King Louis XVI. I hoped the movie aimed to make a point about the French Revolution, but I waited for such a point to no avail.
The film’s only excellent scene follows shortly thereafter. Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) leads his men in a midnight charge on the French fortress at Toulon, demonstrating his undaunted heroism by recapturing the fort above a vital port temporarily occupied by the British. For this one battle, the audience has a reason to care about the fighting, and Phoenix lives out the fortitude of the French hero, giving the audience a glimmer of the military prowess and devotion to his own troops that catapulted Napoleon to monumental greatness.
Tragically, the film climaxes in this early battle, and the rest of the movie proves an execrable morass.
Had I $200 million to spend to make a film about Napoleon, I would choose one aspect of his story and give it time to breathe. I might focus on his rise to power, and feature a Toulon scene much like this one. I might focus on his pivotal victory at the Battle of Austerlitz (1805), showing his strategic vision and introducing audiences to a few commanders and soldiers to really give the audience stakes in the battles. I might portray Napoleon as a tragic figure, leading the Russia campaigns and culminating in his ultimate defeat at the Battle of Waterloo (1815).
I would choose one aspect of his life and use it to craft a moral and political message about the dangers of hubris, the impact of the French Revolution, the ways in which Napoleon rode the tide of history or molded it himself. I would try to make a point about Napoleon’s life that would resonate with audiences—because that’s what a good filmmaker does.
Tragically, Scott seemed utterly disinterested in Napoleon, in giving a moral or political message, or even in giving audiences a reason to care about the multimillion-dollar spectacle before them.
He decided not so much merely to bite off more than he could chew, but to gobble down a skyscraper. “Napoleon” features Toulon, Austerlitz, Russia, and Waterloo, and somehow manages to make none of them mean anything.
Unlike “Gladiator”—which focuses on revenge, justice, and freedom, bringing ancient Rome to life—”Napoleon” merely tells most of Bonaparte’s life’s story without any clear theme or moral point.
That makes moments that should resonate with audiences fall utterly flat. When Napoleon returns from exile on the island of Elba, he approaches a group of soldiers who have been ordered to aim their rifles at him. Phoenix gives what should have been a rousing speech, and the soldiers soften, even pledging loyalty to him. While the scene captured the heart of Napoleon’s appeal to his troops and the dramatic poignancy of his return from exile, the movie never earns the moment, and the speech itself is disappointing and vanilla.
Napoleon has spent almost zero time with the troops on screen, and he spends all the time in the battles ordering his troops from behind.
The audience never develops a connection with any of the French troops doing the fighting, so the battle sequences and the return of Napoleon ring utterly hollow.
The closest this film comes to a point happens after the entire movie when the screen simply lists the number of deaths in the Napoleonic Wars. This list suggests the film is some grand message about the evils of human conflict. Worse, it suggests there would have been no wars without Napoleon—an exceedingly moronic take, considering how controversial the French Revolution was in the courts of Europe.
Had Napoleon never existed, the Napoleonic Wars would certainly have happened in some fashion. The French Revolution was never going to end with just France, and even when the coalitions against Napoleon ultimately prevailed, mini French Revolutions took place across Europe in and before 1848.
Yet the Napoleon movie is not some grand contemplation on the evils of Bonaparte. This list of deaths is merely an embarrassing attempt to salvage some meaning from the film’s flotsam and jetsam. The real heart of the story is Napoleon’s non-romance with Josephine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby), an aristocrat who barely survived the Reign of Terror with her head.
Rather than giving audiences the historical-political war movie we expected, Scott decided to give us a romantic tragedy without the romance. The plus-side of a magnet has more chemistry with another plus-side than Phoenix’s Napoleon has with Kirby’s Josephine. In fact, Josephine immediately cheats on Napoleon on screen, and Napoleon has numerous affairs off screen, despite his loud declarations of love for Josephine. The film squanders its time with unromantic sex scenes to illustrate that the marriage was not loveless, and repeatedly brings up Josephine’s inability to conceive a son, for which Napoleon ultimately divorces her.
Even this plot line, which swallows nearly a third of the runtime, perhaps might be salvageable if the movie used it to make a point about the unfairness of royal customs or the love that perseveres through such obstacles. Yet the movie acts more like a documentary, attempting to portray a gritty version of what likely happened, rather than a pointed critique or celebration of something. It suggests that Josephine and Napoleon deeply care for one another, but between the lack of chemistry and the painfully awkward portrayals of their “romance,” the entire story falls flat.
Worse, the film strains to reinterpret key moments in Napoleon’s life as attempts to return to Josephine, as if his rise to power and his return from exile were moments in a love story rather than ambitious moves to influence France and Europe. Yet, the film lacks the discipline to make even this odd modern suggestion its central theme. The non-romance instead acts like an alien parasite, sucking the life out of the film.
Ultimately, the film feels like a disengaged fifth grader’s petulant history project. It takes pains to note when and where each event takes place, as if to say, “Hey, audience, see this? It actually happened, please care about it,” without allowing the events to breathe.
This slavish obsession with accuracy seems an extreme overcorrection from “Gladiator,” where Scott butchered the historical record but captured the heart of Roman virtue. Here, Scott has preserved the history only by carefully excising the drama and passion that audiences expect from a blockbuster film.
As if an afterthought, the movie serves up two spectacles of battle: Austerlitz and Waterloo, but manages to remove any real drama from those famous conflagrations. In each case, the audience has no sense of why the battles are important, what Napoleon and his opponents are trying to achieve, and why they should care about the men dying before their eyes.
By contrast, “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” provides a masterclass in battle storytelling. The Battle of Helm’s Deep delivers an awesome spectacle of fascinating siege tactics, setting and fulfilling audience expectations, and making audiences care by placing the main characters at the heart of the action. Viewers have a stake in the twists and turns of the battle because they have gotten to know and care about Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys Davies), who are intimately involved in the fighting.
By contrast, audiences in “Napoleon” see nameless, faceless soldiers fighting in ranks they don’t understand, with Napoleon in the distance commanding things. The film has spent no time explaining why the battle matters, what the ramifications are for France if Napoleon loses, and why viewers should care about those doing the fighting. All we know is that this is a massive battle, and Napoleon is in control, so we should just watch and eat our popcorn.
The problem with this approach is that it tosses all the drama out the window. I love watching battle sequences, but I grew to hate these because they’re so pointless. Scott seems not to know or care why the battles are important, and the film’s lack of direction makes even the most exhilarating moments bland.
I got the sense that if someone could just sit down with Scott and tell him, “Hey, here’s why Napoleon’s important, and why he’s actually interesting,” perhaps we would have got something a little more like “Gladiator” and a little less like “Real Housewives of Revolutionary Paris.” But if $200 million isn’t enough to wake Scott up to a historical character as interesting as Napoleon Bonaparte, I fear nothing will.
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