NAPOLEON

★★★

A SPRAWLING, MESSY EPIC THAT NEVER QUITE KNOWS WHAT IT WANTS TO SAY

THEATRICAL REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
23rd November 2023

Napoleon Bonaparte - the legendary French general and emperor whose military prowess reshaped Europe at the turn of the 19th century - has long fascinated, and ultimately stumped, ambitious filmmakers. French director Abel Gance conceived of a six-part film series on Napoleon in the 1920s, but was only able to complete the first part in 1927, a staggering six-hour epic that rewrote much of the language of cinema and barely covered Napoleon's early years. Rather than completing his ambitious project, Gance never made it past the first film, which was whittled down over the last decade before being mostly rescued through reconstructions. In 1970, following the success of his magnificent seven-hour adaptation of 'War and Peace' (1965-1967), Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk made his English-language debut with 'Waterloo', a detailed and sprawling dramatisation of the battle that ended Napoleon's career. As impressive a technical achievement as the film was, it failed dismally at the box office. Most famous of all is Stanley Kubrick's unmade film on Napoleon, one he spent years researching and was preparing to shoot when the failure of 'Waterloo' spooked investors, the legendary director instead channelling this energy into his 1975 masterpiece 'Barry Lyndon'.

This just scratches the surface of the many attempts to bring even just episodes in the life of Napoleon to the screen. The problem, in almost every case, is that his life and career are simply too big for a single film to tackle, as evidenced by Gance's belief he would need six films just to cover it. Much like the description of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's play, Napoleon did "bestride the narrow world / like a Colossus" during his reign as First Consul and Emperor, with a military career that saw the fall of the monarchy, the French Revolution, the rise and fall of the republic and the return of the monarchy, in every case driven in part by his own hand. On top of that, there is the legendary romance with his first wife Josephine, a deeply complicated relationship heavily documented in their letters to one another. For a man who gossip tells us wasn't particularly tall, his stature in history is enormous.

This is important to remember when approaching Ridley Scott's 'Napoleon', the latest attempt by a major filmmaker to wrestle this sprawling story into shape. On the one hand, it seems like a winning combination. Scott is responsible for some of the finest epics of this century so far, from his Oscar-winning 'Gladiator' (2000) to his much-maligned then miraculously resurrected 'Kingdom of Heaven' (2005) to his unexpectedly rich 'The Last Duel' (2021). Few directors today have the innate skill to balance historical detail, large-scale filmmaking and barnstorming entertainment all at once. Add to that the inspired casting of Joaquin Phoenix ('The Master') as Napoleon and Vanessa Kirby ('Mission: Impossible - Fallout') as Josephine, and you have all the ingredients for something potentially great. This is though the most complementary thing one can say for the film itself, a nearly three-hour race through the life of this Goliath - it always feels like it could potentially be great without ever reaching that greatness.

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The film, written by David Scarpa ('All The Money in the World') covers Napoleon's life from his victory against the British at Toulon at the height of the Revolution in 1793 till his death in exile on the island of Saint Helena in 1821. That's enormous ground to cover, even for a three-hour film, and what we get feels more like vignettes of the man's life rather than a full picture of it. Space must be given to his political manoeuvrings, his tumultuous relationship with Josephine and his major military successes and failures. Scott has demonstrated his ability to tackle all three of these kinds of narratives in his films before, and in 'Gladiator' was even able to balance the intimate, the political and the action all at once. In that case through, we only covered a short period of time, allowing us to sit in a moment and let the character drama lead the way. 'Napoleon' is never given that luxury - it never stops to rest, and yet as each episode piles on top of the next, you feel the weight of too much happening in too short a time for the brain to fully comprehend.

And you want to comprehend it all, because it's all fascinating. The mechanics of the Revolution and its aftermath are incredibly complicated, but seeing them through the eyes of a single figure helps to give them some context, and there's joy to be found in watching all these chess pieces moving around and hacking at one another. Even more intriguing is the central relationship, especially with the obvious playful chemistry between Phoenix and Kirby. The connection between Napoleon and Josephine makes so little sense, but by leaning into that, it makes them feel incredibly real and relatable. Their feelings for one another are messy and difficult; they both love and loathe all at once, and to the film's credit, it never tries to iron out those details into some sort of sweeping romance. In fact, it uses these complications as the thematic arc of the film, the cruelty, selfishness, openness and immaturity Napoleon demonstrates in his marriage becoming a primer for his life as a public figure.

It would have been foolish for Scott and Scarpa to lionise Napoleon as an uncomplicated Great Man, especially when they have an actor as skilled and bombastic as Phoenix in the role. They certainly have admiration for his military genius, but they also don't shy away from what a self-oriented, aggrandising and emotionally immature man Napoleon was. Actions he sees as logical read to others as wantonly cruel or densely manipulative, and while they often result in victories, they always come with a cost. The scattershot nature of the film means we never really know what it thinks about him - but then again, perhaps this gives an accurate sense of what being around the man was like, the chaos of being at the mercy of someone of great power and influence who seems always on the verge of laughing at you, screaming at you, pleading to you or chucking a tantrum.

What becomes more fascinating is seeing how others around him learn to use his tempestuousness to their advantage. To his fellow politicians, Napoleon becomes a blunt instrument to gain power, taking advantage of his military might and the affection he instils in his soldiers to sway the powers of Europe. On a more intimate level, we can see Josephine doing the same, weathering the tempers of her husband to ensure her protection in a world in the process of shifting. That isn't to say that Josephine as played by Kirby isn't also driven by a love for Napoleon, but an actor as tremendous as Kirby isn't going to play Josephine as just another wife to a famous historical figure. There's a need in her, a self-protection that keeps an emotional dagger hidden on her person. Unlike the politicians around Napoleon, whose self-interest is the act of gaining power, hers is a need for self-protection, knowing that this man can (and will) turn on her when the mood takes him.

It's enormous ground to cover, even for a three-hour film, and what we get feels more like vignettes of the man's life rather than a full picture of it.

There's definitely a sense that Scott and his team are aiming for something beyond the expected with 'Napoleon', and while the frantic rhythm of the film sometimes comes across as jarring, at other times it gives it a thrilling sense of chaos. One aspect of the film that really intrigued me was the choice of Martin Phipps as composer. Phipps has often worked in television in the UK, taking over scoring duties on the last four seasons of 'The Crown' to great effect. He brings a really strong modern tone to his compositions, a lush orchestral romanticism executed through electronic music and synth. For the most part, this gives 'Napoleon' a lovely contemporary texture, not far removed from what James Horner did with 'Titanic', albeit on a much more muted scale. The music choices in the film in general are a bizarre hodgepodge - at one end, there's some cheeky use of Edith Piaf, while at the other, odd use of Dario Marianelli's iconic score for 'Pride and Prejudice' and even Phipps' own score for the BBC adaptation of 'War and Peace'.

Anchoring the episodic nature of the film are the battle sequences, one place where we know Scott and his team excel, and yet, as impressive as the battles are, they never seem to find their place within the film. The central battle of Austerlitz, one of Napoleon's most famous victories, is easily the highlight of the film and a sequence that solidifies the specific tone of the battles in the film.

Where Scott's battle sequences in previous films have been thrilling nail-biters, here they are swift marches towards oblivion. The violence is more shocking and more bloody, there's little enjoyment to be had in them (I mean that as a compliment), and they build to an overwhelming sense of loss and horror. Austerlitz, fought with frightening military precision on a frozen lake, ties all these threads together while demonstrating Napoleon's cold ruthlessness.

However, the Battle of Austerlitz has one advantage over the other battles in the film - it's the only one we haven't really seen before at this scale. The ghost of Bondarchuk's films hangs heavy over 'Napoleon' - as well-staged as the Battle of Waterloo is, it feels too swift and strangely inconsequential, certainly compared to the scale of Bondarchuk's film. The campaign that suffers the most is the Invasion of Russia and the Battle of Borodino, presented here almost in a montage as if Scott wasn't that interested in it. By comparison, Bondarchuk's recreation of this battle in his 'War and Peace' is staggering, and while it's ultimately an unfair comparison to make considering the scale of 'War and Peace', I couldn't help but feel the weight of these other films on Scott's. Perhaps though the real problem with the battle sequences is that Napoleon isn't fighting in them. By virtue of his position (and the suggestion early in the film that he might be a great general, but he's a really bad soldier), he sits at a distance and watches. What this means is that we have no one to follow through the battles, no emotional arc. Austerlitz works because of the horror its scale induces, but the others seem to happen at an emotional distance.

This ultimately becomes the main issue with 'Napoleon', a film I really liked but found hard to fully emotionally invest in. It did leave me with a sense of the man, but it all felt far too swift to let me get any more of a sense. I do wonder whether the fact we know a four-hour cut of the film is around the corner (due to stream on Apple TV+ at some point in the near future) might influence our reading of this film's frantic energy, but I couldn't shake the fact that it felt rushed, even unfinished at points, even though it clearly isn't and, for all its faults, is executed at the highest quality. You can feel the moments that are missing, the detail that you're craving, hidden within the gaps in the film.

That said, in its current state, I still walked away from 'Napoleon' satisfied. It's a rousing piece of epic historical entertainment at a time when such films seem to have disappeared. If Ridley Scott is single-handedly keeping this kind of film afloat, it couldn't be in better hands. And thanks to the brilliance of its two leads, especially Joaquin Phoenix's playfulness and his willingness to be unlikeable, it's a surprisingly funny film. If only there were more of Vanessa Kirby in it, so intriguing is her portrayal of Josephine, but I suspect we will see more of her in the longer cut.

Perhaps we'll also get a sense of the film Scott was trying to make from the beginning, something more rigorous and complicated, richer and meatier. As it stands though, 'Napoleon' is a sweeping, sprawling mess of a film, like a table after an enormous feast. There's a bunch of bits everywhere and you know the whole meal would probably have been more satisfying, but you can't deny how tasty all the leftovers are. How grateful we are that destiny has delivered them to us.

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