Ever the controversialist, filmmaker Ridley Scott has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way on his press tour for Napoleon. Whether it’s insulting the French or telling historians to “get a life” following their complaints of the film’s perceived historical inaccuracies, ol’ Sir Ridley has certainly got people talking. But is the film any good?
This old-fashioned historical epic traces the rise and fall of infamous emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix), with our story beginning with the execution of Marie Antoinette in 1793 and culminating with the death of the titular despot in 1821. That’s a lot of ground to cover in 157 minutes, and the result is inconsistent pacing that veers wildly from tediously bloated to rushed. Ridley Scott has promised a 4hr10min director’s cut will be available in the near future, and that comes as little surprise – this theatrical cut is often messy and clunky, and the fact that almost two hours has been stripped from it is self-evident as a result. Character motivations and emotions are only examined at a distance, and the film feels somewhat cold as a result. We learn very little about Napoleon and his tumultuous relationship with Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), for example, in favour of what the film does succeed in – spectacle.
Yes, Napoleon is a film far more concerned with big-screen entertainment than anything else. The battle scenes are immense; the Battle of Austerlitz, heavily used in the film’s marketing campaign, could go down as one of the greatest historical battles in cinema. And of course, you can’t have a Napoleon film without the Battle of Waterloo which is equally impeccable in its visceral action and fascinating insight into military strategy. These sequences are bombastic, and made for the cinema. This is Ridley firing on all cylinders with some of his greatest action filmmaking to date.
It’s a shame, then, that a lot of the film otherwise struggles to engage. Performances are stellar – both Phoenix and Kirby are flawless in the leads, while a supporting cast including a memorable Rupert Everett also lend to the film’s prestige quality. There’s some genuine laughs throughout, too – intentional, I might add. The film has a wicked sense of humour and some really amusing moments. In true brutally honest fashion, Scott said in a recent interview with Letterboxd that “if you don’t laugh, you have no sense of humour whatsoever”.
Production design is also magnificent across the board, gorgeously shot by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. Napoleon is a visual feast. But there’s an emptiness in the narrative and the character development – it will surely be rectified by Scott’s 4hr+ cut, but those seeing the film in its theatrical form may feel short-changed.
On the subject of disappointment, historians have been very vocal about the historical inaccuracies in Napoleon – to which, Ridley famously told them to “get a life” and “fuck off” because “they weren’t there”. This is a whole other discussion for another day, but briefly put, I must say I side with Ridley. While there might’ve been a more polite way of putting it, I believe true objectivity in storytelling around events that happened 200 years ago is impossible. Napoleon is, as mentioned, pure spectacle entertainment. Those looking for the ‘truth’ will have to read some of the thousands of books on the subject.
With the fact that Scott had evidently planned these two cuts, he perhaps would’ve been wiser to cut the theatrical down even more to focus entirely on the spectacle. At 157 mins, it’s still a long old slog at the movies and it threatens to feel longer as it keeps the audience at an arm’s length with its lack of an emotional core or through-line. Seeing it in the cinema is recommended for the sheer majesty of the film’s action set pieces, but with the caveat that I suspect the director’s cut will be required viewing at home to fill in any gaps and strengthen one’s appreciation for the film and indeed understanding of the history it covers.