Ridley Scott’s take on France’s tiniest tyrant is a head-scratching epic that intersperses fantastic battle scenes with a bizarre lead performance by Joaquin Phoenix as the dictator. Never trying to hide his flat American accent while surrounded by British and Continental actors, Joaquin plays the general like a eccentric neighbor crashing someone else’s costume drama.
Napoleon Bonaparte, to be fair, was an outsider in France, the country where he eventually crowned himself Emperor. Born in French-ruled Corsica, apparently Napoleon did have an accent was bullied when his family moved to France. But in Napoleon, we meet him as a young soldier of few words. We first see him in the crowd witnessing the juicy guillotining of Marie Antoinette in 1793. Though his real-life presence there is fiction, having Antoinette’s disembodied head held up dripping blood for the rapid crowd to see just sets the tone for Ridley Scott’s style.
After a creative victory commanding French forces at the port of Toulon where his clever tactics expel the British occupiers, Napoleon quickly rises through the ranks. He also meets Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), a widow of a guillotined general, mother of two kids, and a recently released prisoner during the Reign of Terror. Napoleon is bewitched–which means he stares at her a lot across a crowded room–until he eventually starts a cute, dorky courtship which leads to marriage.
As his military accomplishments and victories stack up, Napoleon’s climb to political power seems rise even faster. After all, post-Revolution France is a hot mess and European leaders are all jockeying about who to invade next. Napoleon’s battles are often colored by his pining love letters to his wife. Meanwhile, back at home the French tabloids are publishing cartoons of Josephine entertaining her lover while her general husband is away (much to his fury). Napoleon and Josephine’s relationship is presented intriguingly as a kinky, intimate power struggle (unfortunately not explored enough) anchored by true affection. But as the years go on, their marriage becomes strained–the fact that Josephine hasn’t produced an heir turns into a national problem.
To avoid historical spoilers (whoa-oh-oh-Waterloo!), if you have little knowledge of Napoleon’s arc, the periodic reminder of the year makes you wrack your high school memory to figure out where we are in his trajectory (thankfully the film comes in under 3 hours). There are six major battles presented in this film, and they are all stunning set pieces. Egyptian pyramids get pummeled by Napoleon blithely shooting cannonballs. An entire army (or two? or three?) crash through a frozen lake, with men and horses plunging through the ice to their deaths. Napoleon’s army invades an almost dystopian Moscow, burning and abandoned by its leader and people. Oh, and it is worth mentioning, there is also what I think may be a graphic cinematic first: A horse gets blown apart by a cannonball, only to have the Napoleon reach into its mangled chest to retrieve the iron ball as a souvenir.
But it is Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon that seems to both make and break the movie. He is too old to play the younger version of the man (for instance, the real man was in his 20s during the battle of Toulon, as well as when he met his wife), and he looks the same jowly 40-something for a timespan of over 20 years. Amusingly, Napoleon often gets furtive glances from other characters, who seem to question not only Napoleon’s quirks but the weird acting style of the man who plays him. For instance, in the year’s strangest sex scene this side of Oppenheimer, Phoenix’s Napoleon seduces Josephine by making seductive popping sounds with his lips while scuffing his boot on the floor like a randy pony. And try not to laugh when pouty Napoleon exclaims at the dinner table, “Destiny has brought me this lamb chop!”
The one actor who seems to be on the same page as Phoenix is Rupert Everett as the Duke of Wellington, one of Napoleon’s later foes. He seems like he is game to Phoenix ‘s stylings, playing the Duke as amusingly sneering and bitchy, and you kind of wish that the film was reimagined as a buddy movie between the two. Their interplay hints at what this film could have been if Ridley Scott has gone all-out with a consistent vision of Phoenix-style weirdness. But as it is, Napoleon is strangely erratic–a spectacle that is both watchable and head-scratching.