You could always trust director Ridley Scott to fill that screen with incredible visuals and very clear storytelling. From his previous movies like ‘Alien,’ ‘Blade Runner,’ ‘Thelma and Louise,’ ‘Gladiator,’ ‘Black Hawk Down,’ ‘The Counselor,’ and many others, Scott is a master filmmaker who understands the craft and can tell engaging stories through the medium. This time round he takes his vision to tell the story of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French leader who held the world captive at some point in history.
The most interesting thing about this depiction of Napoleon is how director Scott and his screenwriter David Scarpa feel more inclined to just take snapshots of Napoleon’s life – a highlight reel, so to speak – rather than try to paint a fully formed human being. Reading further online, it seems that Scott and Scarpa are also more akin to telling the story of the French leader based on impressions of Napoleon’s life leading to a whole lot of historical inaccuracies (that angered quite a lot of French critics and historians). They were more interested in the spectacle of his military leadership and the scope of what he was able to do for France but not bother to contextualize in the manners of a man with a goal.
Like one reviewer says, the film never really goes out of its way to tell us why Napoleon did what he did. On a personal note, I found that the film spends just as much time depicting Napoleon’s love for Empress Josephine but doesn’t bother to explain why or show why he loves her. His feelings for her drive motivates half his actions in the movie but we don’t see the root cause of it so it’s hard for us to grasp his character. The rest of the time, he is taking over the world around him, laying siege to Austria and firing canons at the pyramids of Egypt (which apparently didn’t happen).
So, while the film unfolds like to show us some of Napoleon’s greatest hits, you never really get to understand or feel the struggle of this enigmatic character. Instead, we get wonderfully staged battle sequences with incredible fight scenes and war choreography. It’s massive in scope and scale and it’s brutal. It looks amazing on the big screen. If anything, Ridley Scott knows how to give us a cinematic spectacle.
He leaves the humanizing to his incredible actors. Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon and Vanessa Kirby plays Empress Josephine and while we have no real understanding of their relationship or the source of all their emotions – their love story is very passionate and intense – it’s still a marvel to watch because of how committed these two actors are to their roles.
Phoenix instills so much brute force into his Napoleon, playing him as a sort of petulant child who also happens to be a military genius. He does not shy away from veering towards quirky representation, playing him almost child-like and childish when in front of Josephine but then switches it up to a frightening scowl of great depths when he studies a battlefield and is eager to win. Kirby meets him head-on, a woman who understands her effect on the French leader but also in fear of it. It’s a fantastic balancing act that works wonders onscreen. Their chemistry together is amazing.
But that’s what makes the film such an interesting artifact. It’s a wonderful cinematic work that’s enjoyable to watch onscreen. The action is clearly defined, and you can easily follow through the emotions – it’s an old school sort of camera use and editing that allows the narrative flow so freely – but at the same time, the film feels so alien as a biopic because instead of humanizing its subject, it keeps him at a distance. He wants us to marvel at the myth of the person but does nothing to get us to know him or understand him.
It’s an interesting approach to filmmaking in the modern age that is geared more towards authenticity and nuance. There’s none here and it feels refreshing and new and even a little rebellious. And the fact that it’s coming from a legendary filmmaker who debut in 1977 with ‘The Duellists.’
I’m all for it.