Napoleon: The BRWC Review. By Daniel Rester.
Sir Ridley Scott is about to turn 86 in a few days, and yet the director still brings the energy of a filmmaker in his forties. His latest muscular historical epic is Napoleon, with Joaquin Phoenix playing the French military commander and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. While Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa try to cram a lot of Napoleon’s life into a film under three hours and Phoenix is a bit old to be playing the man in the earlier scenes, the three of them and their collaborators still bring some admirable efforts to the project.
The film takes place between 1793 and 1821, from the execution of Marie Antoinette to Napoleon’s exile and death on Saint Helena. Major battles from his life are covered, including Toulon, Austerlitz, and Waterloo. His relationship with Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) is also explored as the two struggle to have a child – and heir – over the years.
Napoleon often feels like a disjointed bullet point list as it rushes through many of the title character’s accomplishments and controversial actions. The Battle of the Pyramids, for example, is reduced to Napoleon just ordering a cannon to fire upon a pyramid. In Between these sections are scenes of Napoleon and Joséphine’s relationship, which boils down to toxic arguments, playful and sexual bickering, and narration for the reading of love letters. The first hour of the film can feel sluggish as it establishes Napoleon’s rise to power and this key relationship.
Though Scott’s film feels messy, it still has many aspects that work, starting with the cast. Phoenix and Kirby have gripping moments of verbal battles, some of them even surprisingly amusing. Seeing a leader like Napoleon reduced to whining and throwing food in order to get his way from Joséphine certainly removes the character from any hero-worship display. Scott and Scarpa paint these lovers as selfish humans first and popular public figures second while Phoenix and Kirby bounce off of each other well.
As expected for an epic directed by Scott, the production is handsome and impressive. The battles have real weight and scale to them and the costumes and production design are top-notch. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who has become a frequent collaborator of Scott, captures the landscapes, period details, and carnage with an expert eye. I do wish the color palette was less drab though as Scott and Wolski have decided to give Napoleon the same blue-gray, cold look that they chose for The Last Duel (2021).
The Battle of Austerlitz scene is the highlight of the film and one of the standout scenes of the year. Unlike some of the other battles, Scott doesn’t rush through this one. It builds suspensefully and provides a magnificent display of Napoleon’s skills as a war strategist. There are underwater shots with ice and blood mixing together that are quite eye-opening. The Waterloo climax is exciting as well, but the Austerlitz scene takes the crown.
Scott, who frequently provides various cuts of his films, is apparently working on a four-hour version of Napoleon for Apple TV+. The current theatrical length is 158 minutes. The extra time will likely help with the film’s pacing, but I don’t think four hours will be enough either in covering so many major events in this figure’s life. Scarpa should have chosen to focus on one part of Napoleon’s life or written this as a long miniseries instead. Even so, much of Napoleon still works thanks to Scott’s guidance. The whole may be a mess, but the individual parts are often commendable.
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