Napoleon (Columbia Pictures, R)

In recent years, Ridley Scott has been hit-or-miss with his historical dramas. Once one of cinema’s most reliable combinations of director and genre, a long period of middling efforts starting after Kingdom of Heaven has muted the praise of even his earlier work. But with 2021’s The Last Duel and now Napoleon, Scott seems to be back on track, and even expanding his thematic horizons. These are all good omens for his upcoming sequel to Gladiator.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a usually stone-faced, yet always blazingly egotistical Napoleon Bonaparte. As the Corsican faces prejudicial scrutiny from the mainland French in his rise to power, we see some of the horrors of the French Revolution through his eyes, and thus we understand why he would want to bring some measure of stability to the country after such chaos. On the field of battle, Scott and his crew do an exceptional job of showing how Bonaparte’s legendary strategies as a military commander contained the chaos of war. The marriage of Phoenix’s performance and Scott’s direction also emphasizes the chaotic nature of Bonaparte’s rise to the French throne, often to unexpected but welcome comedic effect.

The glue which often holds all this chaos together is Vanessa Kirby’s performance as Joséphine Bonaparte (born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie). Scott’s most interesting thematic work can be found in the odd romance between Napoleon and Joséphine. There clearly is some amount of real love there, but Napoleon is rarely shown to be a competent lover, clearly seeing the eventual Empress in part as a conquest and not fully a partner. Her affairs while he is off expanding the French Empire seem to hurt his pride more than his heart. No matter the situation, however, Kirby’s Joséphine always maintains a steely confidence and resolve, making her a perfect match for Phoenix’s all-too-calculated Napoleon. So much attention is given to this relationship that it actually stings when the marriage is annulled.

Even with all these terrific qualities, what keeps the film from the heights it could have reached is its relative feeling of emotional and motivational disorganization, especially pertaining to the overarching military history. We know what Bonaparte’s goals were in all his military exploits, and Scott certainly never excuses him for being a tyrant, but we rarely get a sense of why one foot has been placed in front of the other in a procedural sense. Battles just sort of come and go as they please within the film’s pacing. So while the portrayal of the battles themselves is excellent from every conceivable technical angle, we don’t get a sense of the political pressures Bonaparte is dealing with until much later in the film, when it deals with his exile and eventual return to power. These issues in the second act make the film’s first and third acts its most consistent and memorable, even for as spectacular as the battle sequences are.

Still, Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa nicely put their film squarely at the center of the centuries-long debate as to whether Bonaparte was fully responsible for starting the wars he fought in. Consistently returning to the well of dry comedy, they definitely rely on the popular notion of Bonaparte as an egomaniac. Crucially, they also texture the film with enough of his inner life to balance the scales in making a three-dimensional character. Perhaps every bit of the film isn’t entirely historically accurate, but it almost always feels emotionally credible and on the right side of history. | George Napper

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