Outside of military colleges, where his strategic acumen is still lauded, many present-day folks might only have a loose sense of Napoleon Bonaparte, with a bicorne hat and hand tucked in his jacket, as a man of short stature and shorter temper. Director Ridley Scott’s Napoleon sweeps aside this caricature, craftily sidestepping the pitfalls of many conventional biopics and delivering a highly involving work of psychological portraiture.
It is a film that thrillingly covers the French military commander’s ascension—from Corsican outsider to exalted emperor and, eventually, defeated exile—but also uses his domestic life to expand the viewer’s aperture of understanding of him as a man, and in turn ask them to reflect upon some of the broader frailties of humankind.
The movie opens during the French Revolution and showcases the Siege of Toulon in 1793, which makes a hero of Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix). The rest of his rise to political power and the ups and downs of the Napoleonic Wars across Europe, however, are heavily counterbalanced by Napoleon’s relationship with the woman who would become his wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby), an older, widowed mother of two. The pair’s marriage, and its turbulent infidelities and subsequent struggles to produce an heir, provide Scott’s film with its spine.
Early on, somewhat ill-served by a sequence in which its subject bears witness to Marie Antoinette’s beheading, Napoleon feels like it might be a “hits” packaging of rather pedestrian insights. (A quick glimpse of the French campaign in Egypt also feeds this fear.) As it unwinds, though, one becomes struck more by the scenes that are actually missing from the movie—choices which cannily reflect the shrewd judgment of David Scarpa’s script, Scott’s overall vision, and the work of editors Claire Simpson and Sam Restivo.
Tedious introductions to characters are absent, as are scenes of advisors arguing against war, or conquered adversaries begrudgingly acknowledging Napoleon’s genius. To a surprisingly large degree, Napoleon also eschews courtly intrigue and plotting. The bloodless coup overthrowing the ruling French Directory unfolds via montage, but in Scott’s film, there is no presentation of subsequent assassination plots during the French Consulate, no unpacking of the Haitian Revolution and territorial retrenchment of the Louisiana Purchase.
Napoleon’s family life is also presented in tightly edited terms. His brother Joseph’s assistance in securing power is shown, but there’s not much of a sense of their relationship. Other siblings are absent, as are his stepchildren. His mother, by all accounts a much more prominent figure in his life, first appears nearly an hour into the movie.
If this sounds like an indictment of the film, it’s actually the opposite; instead, Scarpa’s trim, incisive screenplay invests in the feedback loop of Napoleon’s battlefield successes and failure to find the love he so desperately needs from Joséphine—an endless struggle between two headstrong individuals, each held back by their own insecurities and anxieties.
While set against a backdrop of nationalist fervor and discontent that has undeniable parallels to the present day, the film approaches its portrait of political power somewhat sideways. As depicted, Napoleon is something of a brilliant vessel—a military tactician of considerable skill who recognizes his value to others, and often leverages that quite shrewdly, but isn’t necessarily always playing four-dimensional chess. Rather, his ambitions are presented almost as drops in a bucket, and his rise the natural result of this incremental accrual.
This approach—the intimately scaled motivations, and the smallness of their contours—helps render the character of Napoleon much more readily relatable. Whether this depiction is any more or less inherently “true” is for historians to argue. The chosen frame for this story, interestingly, shares much in common with Maestro, which unpacks Leonard Bernstein’s life and career largely through his relationship with his wife, Felicia Montealegre.
Ridley Scott is a masterful creator of worlds, and one of the last working directors whose grasp extends back beyond CGI, so that he knows how to use it in complementary fashion rather than as a blunt instrument. Scott’s command of scale and historical battlefields, previously evidenced in Gladiator and Kingdom Of Heaven, is as masterful as ever, and in some ways, Napoleon feels like the culmination of his career.
But the size of the canvas doesn’t read as orgiastic excess. The film’s half-dozen battle sequences all feel like they serve a purpose, and communicate and illuminate new aspects of character, from Napoleon’s nerves at Toulon to the genius of his plan at Austerlitz, and the folly by way of arrogance found at Waterloo. This interplay between exterior action and interior revelation is the engine which drives Napoleon, and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski wonderfully translates it visually. There is a special delight to be found in the contrast of stunningly captured, smoke-laden battlefields with well-appointed rooms of power, dust floating subtly in the air.
Phoenix is justifiably regarded as one of the more compelling actors of his generation, and there’s an ingenious simplicity to his performance here, grounded as it is in compartmentalization. There’s a healthy ribbon of the same undercurrent of sullenness and hurt found in Phoenix’s turn as Commodus in his previous collaboration with Scott, Gladiator.
The actor also taps into Napoleon’s aching vulnerability (as well as the wall of guardedness built around it), and believably contrasts this with the certitude and forcefulness of his public-facing persona in a way that the script only hints at. There are also a couple very amusing moments—flashes of petulant anger and defensiveness—that run the risk of being co-opted by meme culture. Some might find these tonally jarring, but they are actually quite humanizing, deftly puncturing the precious bubble of prestige drama and showing the emotional fitfulness of someone whose comfort in his own skin exists only in moments either fleeting or extreme.
There isn’t a minute of Napoleon’s 158-minute running time that feels squandered (if anything, it palpably whets one’s appetite for Scott’s four-hour-plus cut, promised for streaming release later on Apple TV+). One either accepts the premise of a 48-year-old Phoenix portraying Napoleon from his twenties onward, or rejects it. One either yields to the narrative realities of what Scott’s fascinatingly engaging movie is, or clings tightly to stodgy preconceptions of exactly what laid track screen biopics should follow. Breathing rich life into a complicated bygone figure, Napoleon is a film that should only grow in esteem, likely sparking a devotion to equal its much-studied subject.
Napoleon opens in theaters November 22