Directed by Ridley Scott.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, John Hollingworth, Youssef Kerkour, Davide Tucci, Edouard Philipponnat, Ludivine Sagnier, Matthew Needham, Erin Ainsworth, Thom Ashley, Anna Mawn, Gavin Spokes, and Jonathan Barnwell.
An epic that details the checkered rise and fall of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his relentless journey to power through the prism of his addictive, volatile relationship with his wife, Josephine.
Historical epics such as Napoleon don’t seem to get made (or make money) anymore, but when they do come out, they typically seem to be directed by Ridley Scott, who could helm large-scale action sequences and render them riveting in his sleep if he wanted to. That’s not to say his sprawling journey of the short-statured military commander Napoleon Bonaparte (played by Joaquin Phoenix, making curious acting choices from scene to scene, ensuring the performance stays dynamic, lively, and difficult to pin down) necessarily has a new take on the historical figure, as he is depicted as a brilliant wartime strategist with, well, a Napoleon complex.
Napolean is insecure, angry at the world, power-hungry, and perhaps most interestingly, finds himself getting cucked by his wife Josephine (an underwritten but hypnotic Vanessa Kirby) while he is away in battle. The fact that someone would grow tired of this manchild and sleep around isn’t surprising, but rather how his continued rise in social status, authority, and time strengthens their relationship.
However, Josephine is repeatedly unable to get pregnant and give birth to a son, something that not only drives another wedge in between the marriage but is inexplicably harder for him to do than bringing the British Empire to its knees. It’s also probably no accident that whenever the two are engaged in intercourse, the height difference is unmistakably noticeable, with Napoleon struggling to exert the dominance he projects onto the world with his authoritarian disposition. Likewise, she is initially only a possession for him to control before they grow closer.
There is plenty of action across Napoleon’s rise from a lowly soldier seeking a promotion during the time of Marie Antoinette’s public execution to his council coup to anointment as French Emperor all the way to eventually abdicating that role and exiled from France, and it’s all intense to behold while expressing his battlefield intelligence and awareness (such as a sequence where cannonballs are shot at the ground, revealing and cracking ice for his enemies to fall into and drown), but more compelling is a thorny, romantic, emotional core that sees him usually writing letters and spilling out his feelings while torn, knowing that he may have to divorce the woman he loves to find a suitable woman to secure his heir.
The third act described above is juxtaposed with an additional 90 minutes that is darkly humorous more than anything, with Joaquin Phoenix well aware of who he is playing. Napoleon is a man who desperately craves public approval but whom no one can stand. Everything is an uphill battle (no pun intended) for the small soldier, saddled with insecurities ranging from that height to mommy issues to marriage woes to less than favorable public opinion to an unshakable thirst for conquest. Considering that absurdly ambitious personality, life is more like an uphill mountain to scale where, before it’s realized, it’s no longer possible to look down and see what’s truly important in life.
Once again collaborating with David Scarpa, Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World collaborator, several ancillary characters would bloat this review from taking the time to touch on, but it needs to be mentioned that the character study approach to Napoleon here would have been more impactful had it spent more time not only taking an interest in Vanessa Kirby’s Josephine but exploring her life in general. It also shouldn’t be forgotten that Ridley Scott and Apple plan on releasing an extended four-hour cut of Napoleon, which would either inflate what is here to an unwatchable, unwieldy, enormous mess of a film or touch up most of the shortcomings. There is also a chance that a longer version meets those extremes somewhere in the middle.
Napoleon is a shape-shifting epic that is equal parts amusingly in touch with the portrayal of the French Emperor most people are familiar with and quietly, progressively heartbreaking in its slow unraveling of a complex marriage that does seem to contain sincere love. Joaquin Phoenix walks the line between anxiety-ridden, awkward walking disaster, and masterful military mind, making Napoleon an enriching, if undeniably flawed, dive into Napoleon’s psyche that will either improve with the upcoming extended cut or provoke further research and conversation.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com