Thursday, December 7, 2023

Napoleon ***1/2 (2023)

Ridley Scott's Napoleon brings to the big screen one of history's most controversial figures, the Corsican Napoleon Bonaparte. Played with a pouty gusto by Joaquin Phoenix, Napoleon is more of a suggestive historical epic than a precise one. Impressive battle sequences and political intrigue are matched by scenes with the one figure who could level the emperor - the Empress Josephine played by Vanessa Kirby. 

Filmmakers have struggled to bring Napoleon's life to the big screen. Abel Gance's 1927 silent epic is considered the best by film scholars. Stanley Kubrick struggled for years to get his Napoleon project off the ground, but it was never meant to be. Earlier this year Steven Spielberg alluded to adapting Kubrick's Napoleon for as a limited series with himself as producer. Whether Ridley Scott's film will help or hinder the TV project remains to be seen (Scott's film will stream as an expanded 4-hour version on Apple TV). 

The two and a half hour running time of the current theatrical version certainly feels like pieces are missing. Much of the first hour is devoted to Napoleon's rise in revolutionary France, the middle on his military campaigns, and the final section on his downfall. The script weaves between epic battle scenes and melodrama, providing an odd duality with Napoleon as the master of politics and warfare, while being dominated emotionally by Josephine at home. 

As a tapestry, small moments of Napoleon's quirks punctuate the narrative. He screams at the English ambassador, "You think you're so great because you have BOATS!" Or when he toys with the Russian Tsar Alexander or sadly wanders around an empty Moscow, the film is savvy to his unique charisma. Recreations of Napoleonic warfare are especially effective, the Battle of Austerlitz is visually stunning. Achievements outside of military glory are glossed over, like his creating the modern legal code in France or the inspiration he brought to the intelligentsia of Europe who viewed him as the embodiment of Enlightenment ideals.

As one of cinema' most skillful commercial filmmakers, Scott realizes he's making a mass entertainment. One can pick apart the structure or the historical accuracy, yet the world building is high- level. Scott communicates with confidence the vastness of the historical scope his story is built upon, without getting bogged down in minutia. The final result is imperfect, but highly entertaining.