Few historical figures are as notorious as Napoleon – the great strategist, commander, and monarch of the French Revolution. His battles were ruthless, his triumphs insurmountable, yet, no filmmaker has attempted to reversion his story for the silver screen. Stanley Kubrick came close but the project was quickly abandoned in the 60s and now Ridley Scott, arguably one of the great visual filmmakers of our time, is having a go several decades later.
For those wanting a compelling and epic Bonaparte biopic though, Scott's turgid and lacklustre endeavour fails to capture the virtuosity and vigour of the eponymous emperor and his rise to power. The visual splendour is certainly undeniable though with some of the most impressively staged battle sequences of the year; the bone-crunching sound design and taut choreography cultivate thrilling combat scenes that are grand, immersive and genuinely exciting to watch unfold. The greyed-out colour palette adds an iciness to the sequences too so the stark red of the blood really embellishes the brutality of Napoleon's tactical manoeuvres. But considering he was known for his strategy on the battlefield, competent action feels like the bare minimum and it's too few and far between to redeem the otherwise crawling pace and woeful dialogue that plagues the rest of the film.
Napoleon was more than his military record and it's here that the film falls short, failing to create a genuinely interesting and nuanced leading man. Scarpa's writing is tonally all over the place with wooden gags, stifled dialogue and no emotional pathos. Joaquin Phoenix turns in a solid performance but it's a far cry from his best work; Vanessa Kirby impresses as Napoleon's anchor Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby) but their tumultuous relationship isn't explored nearly enough. Their sex scene plays like a parody while the more grounded moments of their romance are too melodramatic and soapy — there's no middle ground.
It's in this realm that Napoleon struggles. There needs to be levity as Bonaparte himself, famously, was often a childish brute around women and couldn't hold a tune and would cheat in cards. But it should also treat his military achievements with respect and seriousness; Scott and Scarpa swing too hard either way and the result is messy and muddled. Despite flashes of brilliance in the direction and some genuinely thrilling, white-knuckle action, Napoleon buckles under the pressure of Bonaparte's immense legacy. Perhaps this is why filmmakers have left this story well enough alone. Maybe Ridley Scott should have too.
Napoleon released in UK cinemas on November 22nd, 2023.