In a conversation with Empire Magazine, Ridley Scott promised a cut of his latest movie Napoleon that is over four hours long and “fantastic”; this would be an exciting prospect on paper, maybe, if the two-and-a-half-hour cut of Napoleon felt like anything beyond a cursory scroll through Wikipedia. The acclaimed director’s latest historical epic––not so much sword and sandal as it is cannon and boots––starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, however, is an unfortunate slog: all filler, no killer, stretching into tedium before its rushed ending.
Napoleon Bonaparte, the 19th-century French emperor, is already a man of myth and legend: a genius military tactician; a complicated lover; short, supposedly, but by whose standards. The letters to and from his first wife Joséphine de Beauharnais (depicted here by Vanessa Kirby) paint a picture of a man aching for approval and love from those near and far. In the hands of Phoenix, however, there is a detached irony that clashes with the type of picture Scott seems to be trying to make. He plays the role with the same type of fumbling comedy from Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid, another three-hour epic about a man aching for approval. Any attempt to pick apart Bonaparte’s military prowess is left behind Phoenix’s vague gaze––this Napoleon is a clown, until he’s a genius, until he’s a clown once again.
This might be an effective take on this tumultuous period of European history and conquest were Napoleon to live up to the tone that Scott and Phoenix have crafted around its title character, but every other aspect of the film is almost frustratingly determined to appear rote. David Scarpa’s script underwrites and underutilizes just about everyone except its title character. Kirby’s steely turn as Joséphine in particular suggests something of a feminist reevaluation of the relationship between Bonaparte and his wife: it was politically advantageous for her––an older widow––to marry him up until her inability to bear him an heir forced them towards divorce.
Too much of the film is dedicated towards whether or not Napoleon and Joséphine will “make it work,” a concept not applied to marriage at the time of their relationship. While Kirby is often excellent, her Joséphine exists in another film entirely, one where a single tear falls down the face of an otherwise stoic woman. There is no irony, no archness. Joséphine’s affairs––numerous, according to records––are depicted only to humiliate Napoleon, rehashing the satirical comics of the time. Why she might find loneliness in her role as empress goes otherwise unexplored. For all the time dedicated to their relationship onscreen, there is little specificity outside of Napoleon’s sexual quirks to the nature of their romance––if there really was one. Phoenix and Kirby lack the chemistry to sell this love story for the ages. When they finally separate, it’s a relief.
Napoleon is not a complete wash, mercifully, its strengths pooled in extended and gory battle sequences. You can feel Scott’s excitement at this material, how eager the film is to explain military strategy or blast a cannon through a soldier’s body. These scenes are often thrilling and wonderfully brutal, and Scott and Scarpa do an adequate enough job explaining just how and why Napoleon was seen as a military talent. His strategy deployment, especially during the frigid Battle of Austerlitz, feels dramatic and suspenseful in a way little else does.
Most frustratingly opaque about Napoleon is its form: choppy, unpolished, rushed. For all that’s depicted from the emperor’s life onscreen, there’s little sense of narrative propulsion. Scenes feel stitched together in the edit bay, as though pressed for time. One thing does not lead to another so much as it tumbles into another. Scott’s desire for a longer cut––a supposedly more expansive vision––undercuts what is actually here. Napoleon’s life, so often reduced to bullet points and ironic asides, is given little beyond what we already know.
But maybe that’s not really the point. Maybe we are supposed to take Phoenix and Scott’s arch detachment as something of a polemic on Bonaparte––that for all of his military success, he really was kind of a big joke. Still: that’s a long joke to make. It’s hard not to see the epic scale of Napoleon buck up against that read of history, that little of it mattered by the time Napoleon died in (his second) exile. When the cumulative battle deaths flash on the screen prior to the credits, it’s impossible to know whether Scott is celebrating, mourning, or merely recapping, as one might be inclined to the night before homework is due.
Napoleon opens in theaters on November 22.