English filmmaker Ridley Scott’s historical epics tend to fall into two categories: sweeping masterpieces or utterly dull affairs.
Unfortunately, “Napoleon” leans towards the latter.
That’s not to say that the film is without its merits. As with most of his historical epics, Scott skillfully manages to capture the vividness and grandiosity of the past, depicting everything from haughty British aristocrats to the radical Jacobins of revolutionary France in fine detail.
Every set, prop and costume has been painstakingly crafted to recreate the atmosphere of early 19th century Europe; some of the standouts include the wardrobes of the film’s two leads, Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) and Empress Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), whose costumes exude charisma and power.
Many of the film’s grander set pieces depict abridged versions of Napoleon’s various military battles, the most prominent of which is Scott’s interpretation of the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. Here, Scott offers a significantly shortened version of the battle, condensing it to a single engagement where he amplifies an event involving retreating Austro-Russian troops drowning in a frozen lake into a much bigger catastrophe.
It may not be an authentic portrayal of what actually happened in the battle, but I’d argue that Scott’s skill in crafting battle scenes more than makes up for it. With each of the movie’s battle scenes, you’re always met with a progressive scale of tension that eventually climaxes and simmers down as an engagement nears its end.
It’s an impressive level of restraint for a modern blockbuster, many of which have shunned the use of tension in favor of simply dropping the audience straight into the action. Instead, Scott rewards the viewer’s patience with some of the most brutal depictions of Napoleonic warfare to date.
Unfortunately, this is where the movie’s merits end.
If I had to pinpoint the one fatal flaw that brings the entire movie down, it’d be that the audience is never encouraged to care about Napoleon.
I may have appreciated the visual spectacle of the movie’s battle scenes, but not once did I ever care about whether Napoleon would win or lose a fight. An issue with many historical movies is that they have to ensure that an audience is invested in the outcomes of its characters, especially when they’re depicting actual historical figures. It’s not an easy issue to overcome, particularly if many in the audience are already aware of the outcome, but it’s still something to strive for.
I can’t pin the blame entirely on Scott, of course. His screenwriter, David Scarpa, has equal if not more responsibility over the movie’s flaws.
Scarpa takes the novel approach of centering the movie’s emotional core around the relationship between Napoleon and his wife Josephine. I think this is a welcome change, especially since prior films such as Sergei Bondarchuk’s “Waterloo” overshadow Napoleon’s personal life in favor of depicting his military career.
Despite this, however, Scarpa fails to provide any deeper insights into either character. At the beginning of the movie, a handful of characters point out Napoleon’s origins as a member of the Corsican nobility, but this never actually impacts the film in any meaningful way. Few characters ever display any prejudice towards Napoleon’s provincial roots, nor does being a Corsican even influence Napoleon’s actions or motivations.
Josephine suffers from a similar issue, where inklings of promise are shown but never fully executed, instead being relegated to becoming Napoleon’s object of desire for the latter half of the movie.
“Napoleon” is unfortunately a disappointment, especially compared to Scott’s previous historical epic “The Last Duel,” where his masterful directorial skills were paired with a tightly-written screenplay.
Fortunately, Steven Spielberg is helming a seven-part limited series about Napoleon based off of Stanley Kubrick’s unreleased film project, set to be released in the near future. Those with an avid interest in the Napoleonic era should look towards this to sate their appetite.