Ridley Scott’s epic Napoleon isn’t as bad as his worst films, nor is it as good as his best. By Anthony Carew.

Ridley Scott’s Napoleon

Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon in Egypt.
A scene from Napoleon.
Credit: Sony Pictures

Ridley Scott began his feature film career nearly half a century ago with a movie set in Napoleonic France. His 1977 debut, The Duellists – released just before he etched his name into cinematic legend with science-fiction masterworks Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) – featured Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine as French soldiers who engage in a series of duels over many years.

Across a career more notable for quantity than quality, Scott has repeatedly visited the battlefields of history, in films such as 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Last Duel. Forty-six years on, the 86-year-old director-for-hire – who famously never writes his scripts – has eventually arrived at Napoleon. An epic, some-facts-fudged account of the life and times of the titular French emperor, it’s not simply set in the same time as Scott’s debut but is also underpinned by the same theme: the destructive potential of the wounded male ego.

Perhaps hoping to reassure those who might be daunted by its 158-minute length – Scott, cinema’s most fervent purveyor of the “director’s cut”, is promising a four-hour version to come in its streaming run – the film features plenty of comedy. Jokes are often made at the subject’s expense, which adds an air of irreverence and pushes the picture far from the realms of solemn hagiography. Napoleon is attempting to have its Oscar-bait cake and eat it too: earnestly staging a widescreen historical epic yet undermining its hero as it goes.

Napoleon could easily wear “complex” as the second half of its title. In David Scarpa’s script, the protagonist is depicted as a nightmarish mixture of ambitious striver, blunt-force powerbroker, jealous lover and unconvincing orator. This Napoleon is driven to expansive imperialism by his insecurities; he’s a leader who claims fealty to his people yet remains in thrall to his feelings.

It’s a Great Man biopic made for these times, both attentive to battlefield strategy and conversant in toxic masculinity, while featuring an empathetic rendering of Josephine that frames her as an equal.

The film opens with a flourish in the fervour of Revolutionary France, as the deposed queen Marie Antoinette is led in artful slow-motion to be guillotined in front of a rowdy, semi-CGI’d mob. As the camera picks through the baying crowd, we find Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix inscrutably blank-faced amid the tumult – at this point more a witness to history than a maker of it. The set-up is simple: from the ranks of the unwashed masses, this “Corsican ruffian” will ascend to wear the crown: an unlikely rise to power that demands a generous run-time.

Phoenix’s casting is notable not just for connecting Napoleon to Gladiator, but for how it draws from his career of playing outcasts, misfits, man-children and cucks. This buffoonish “Boney” is at various points all of those things, putting the character in Phoenix’s wheelhouse. Flashes of broad comedy and outbursts of rage feel familiar in his performance, but in more fleeting, possibly improvised moments, Scott allows Phoenix to be present and playful: canoodling with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), patting a large dog, trying to convince a couple of kids that he was the person who burnt Moscow to the ground.

At the other end of the spectrum, Scott shows his skills and trademark aplomb in the many moments of battle or action. No sooner have we witnessed Napoleon’s first strategy meeting than there’s a splendid sequence depicting the storming of an English-occupied seaside fort under the cloak of night, which begins with the hush of a heist and ends with the fiery spectacle of an English tall ship blown to smithereens. Here we see the first flurries of cannon fire, an image that rivals close-up shots of inky signatures for the most overused visual of the movie.

Whether depicting tactical triumph at Austerlitz or hubristic failure at Waterloo, Scott loves large-scale mise en scène: men in armour on horseback, the coordinated movement of troops shown from a distance and the bloody horror of unnamed foot soldiers butchering each other in chaotic mid-shots.

While there’s plenty of charm in the small details and epic shots – and in the laughs to be had from Napoleon falling asleep in a moment of tense political negotiation or trying to impregnate his wife with the fervour of a rutting dog – Napoleon is less impressive when it tackles character, drama and consistency of tone.

It’s fine to frame your Napoleon as no great wit, but that leaves many scenes with deliberately flat dialogue that stinks of rote exposition. It’s admirable to portray Josephine as a character with her own agency, but it’s harder to buy the screenplay’s conviction that these are star-crossed soulmates done in by infertility and the relentless march of military history.

Scarpa tries to shortcut his way to feelings through the recurring voiceovers of Napoleon and Josephine’s letters, but these are addressed to the audience rather than to each other. Instead of placing us between the lovers, so we can inhabit the depth of their feelings, this device only adds to the sense that viewers – like Napoleon at the beheading that opens the film – can only ever be bystanders to history, watching from a distance.

Perhaps this failure to convey emotion wouldn’t matter if the film dealt only in comedy or, better yet, was sharp enough to play as satire, becoming not merely a study of a singular egomaniacal man – “I’m the first to admit when I make a mistake. I simply never do” – but a commentary on the phenomenon.

Instead it attempts to be all things to all Oscar voters: to appeal to those who want their Napoleon macho and bellicose, but also to those who prefer to question the received heroics of history. The film notably ends with a card that tallies the millions of his soldiers who died during his campaigns, accounting all his victories as ultimately pyrrhic.

Scott has made other and better works about the folly of war and the ugliness of the male ego. Of course, he’s also made far worse films than this, too – Someone To Watch Over Me, G.I. Jane, A Good Year, The Counselor, Exodus: Gods and Kings and House of Gucci all spring to mind. Even in its not-quite-success, Napoleon feels like a relief – at least it’s not that bad.

If this were his final movie, it would feel fitting that Scott has come full circle. But, like Napoleon, Scott isn’t daunted by failure and doesn’t plan to go out quietly – he remains one of big-budget cinema’s most indefatigable workers. When he’s not giving boastful and defiant interviews on the Napoleon campaign trail, he’s already in production for his 29th movie, Gladiator 2

Napoleon is screening in cinemas nationally.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 2, 2023 as "Sublime ego".

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