The black hole of pride; a nation completely and utterly consumed by a singular insatiable desire for idolatry. Landscapes ravaged by pathetic, petty tantrums and lives lost to grisly, bloody battle all in the name of some abstract ideal masquerading a lust for self-importance. A world so hopelessly kneecapped by impotent madness that its people barely exist. Specks in the shadow of war, suffering in the name of greatness. Governed by the obstinate aristocracy, the peasantry are little more than a persistent nuisance obstructing the path to love through absolute power. This is Ridley Scott’s Napoleon Bonaparte: a petulant, angry child fueled by a steadfast refusal to ever admit wrong, paired with ruthless entitlement to be granted whatever he believes lies in his destiny.
In over four decades of bold and singular filmmaking, Scott has rarely shied away from the chance to completely demolish the mythos of so-called great men, shred the violent ambitions of greed to ribbons, or showcase the enduring strength of women left in the wake of both. A decade ago, Scott’s Prometheus (2012) melted these ideas of corrosive greed and insatiable ambition into a violent cybernetic nightmare, a gory vision of interstellar conquest where the psychotic aspirations of the ruling class scar the cosmos and end in bloody, violent destruction. With Napoleon he deftly dilutes it all into an ornate, baroque epic designed entirely to cut the French tyrant down to size. Spending a majority of the runtime twisting every scene into a biting destruction of Napoleon’s (Joaquin Phoenix) projected self-image, it’s as much a comedy as it is a sweeping historical epic with some of the most stunning battle sequences put to screen in decades.
It’s hard to deny that Scott’s Napoleon is likely an inferior version of itself, existing in the shadow of his already announced extended cut that would nearly double the runtime of this expansive 158 minute epic. There’s an apparent discordance, a missing connective tissue between the film’s stunning large scale battles that showcase the sheer destructive ruthlessness of Napoleon as a commander and the more stately austerity of his time in France, entirely spent uninterested in ruling and instead focused on the everlasting freefall of his personal life. Without the more languid flow this work may rightly deserve, for better or worse, it becomes full tilt, unrestrained Ridley Scott directorial fervor. A vibrant delight for those who are looking for exactly that, and likely a beautifully rendered slog for many others.
As usual, Scott is in gear and full throttle long before the audience has time to catch up to his game but, once the blisteringly opulent and humiliatingly farcical presentation of Napoleon’s rise to power begins to set in, the rest of the film becomes a delightful, delirious thrill ride packed full of showcasing the sociopathic, petty reality of greatness. Deftly creating a brutal mechanism of bloody victory in the siege of Toulon against the British in the opening act of the film, Napoleon proves his tactical prowess while simultaneously becoming a bloodthirsty madman on the battlefield, charging into the fight at full speed until a cannonball obliterates his horse (a viscerally grisly moment that marks the tone for the film’s attitude towards how grotesquely brutal life outside of lavish wealth is). Back in the palatial halls of the Parisian aristocracy, Napoleon is powerless despite whatever rank or status he achieves, repeatedly embarrassed by the endless psychosexual leverage his wife Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) holds over him, a destructive ouroboros cycle of self-hatred leading to endless death and corruption.
It’s not untrue that the film could use more of both of its disparate halves, especially given the brilliant performances by both Phoenix and Kirby. However, everything on screen remains magnetically engaging and darkly hysterical. There’s a grim undercurrent to all of it, never failing to remind that beneath the pathetic displays of ego there is abundant suffering, but Scott knows how to play up every moment for sheer hilarious absurdity while Phoenix plays it all as deadly serious as anything else. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski shoots every opulent interior as if it were a Romanticist painting and every violently composed exterior with brutal realism, symphonically rendered imagery that dances off the other by exaggerating the bloody contradictions of the catastrophic blows to Napoleon’s image in his home.
Even if Napoleon can’t quite take its central romance through the full bore breakdown you can see behind the façade, and even if it can’t quite elucidate the missing steps between some of the more tumultuous moments of its title characters conquests or the violent chaos of the French Revolution, its mad ambition is as confidently admirable as anything. When it’s committed to film as boldly as only Ridley Scott could commit, it’s a worthwhile sight to see. A full scale, acid washed epic as ice cold as the battle of Austerlitz, hacking down the towering mythos of greatness with blunt force and energetic grit.