‘Napoleon’ Review: Ridley Scott’s Epic Revels in Blood and Nothing Else

Joaquin Phoenix can’t find the tone between childish immaturity and stoic leader

"Napoleon" (CREDIT: Apple)

There’s nothing like launching a costume drama with a good old-fashioned beheading. Unfortunately, in Ridley Scott’s highly-anticipated period piece, the head belongs to one-scene wonder Marie Antoinette. How many times does that history-trampled French queen – her beautiful face pale as baby powder, her eyes wide and wild, her hair a platinum frizz – have to put up with such indignity? She’s the 18th-century equivalent of Bambi’s mom. Give me Sofia Coppola, or give me death.

It’s 1789: something the American audience knows because of the large print sub-and-super-titles. Overused, these give the entire movie the feeling of a middle-school film strip. That said, it was a very good year for revolution and a modicum of social mobility, as the rabble, the military and the surviving nobility try to fill the vacuum with grand republican ideas, and even more severed heads. It’s all very much “you have to break a few eggs to make a souffle” and, yet, still it falls flat. Could it be all the noise and saber rattling?

Enter the Corsican underdog, Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) to slay and slay again, without ever slipping his hand into his coat. All the while, he wears that silly hat beached like a warship atop his head. The movie follows a rise that seems unstoppable in retrospect, through the successful battles from the 1793 Siege of Toulon all the way to his disastrous Russian campaign in 1812 and humiliating 1815 defeat in Waterloo.

It was the best and worst of times, to paraphrase Dickens, however jerry-rigged and dumbed down for an audience who possibly never took a French history course. For many, Napoleon, topping out at a mere 5 foot 6 inches, was the father of the Napoleon Complex. This signified an overly aggressive and domineering outlook to compensate for a petite physique.

It’s no spoiler that acknowledged military genius Bonaparte’s going to become Emperor. The open question is whether Scott’s “Gladiator” star and Oscar-winner Phoenix can rise, bringing the juice as the Corsican cutter beloved by his mother. The good news is that he throws fewer tantrums than he did as the psychopathic Commodus, or the Joker for that matter. And these moments of pique are, thankfully, briskly edited.

Scott has said that he based his image of the man on the many paintings of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). They are neoclassical and depict a statuesque Napoleon as a dominant but still figure, or atop a horse in full control as the beast leaps up on his hind legs. Unlike later painters, say Manet or Degas currently on display at the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, David’s portraits don’t reveal the character of the man or his many moods.

Phoenix is, for the most part, stiff as a canvas figure. Contained. Impassive. Sweaty but unperturbed in battle. Joyless even as he drinks his wine. Patient. And, occasionally, inspiring an eruption of audience giggles, he’s silly and serious simultaneously. At a formal dinner that devolves into a food fight he declares, “Destiny has brought me this lamb chop.”

Some of the most risible moments occur when the film exchanges carnage for carnality. The master of the battlefield uses this lame pick-up line on his future wife: “I won the French victory at Toulon.” The sophisticated, sexually experienced widow Josephine (the piquant Vanessa Kirby, trying very hard to be alluring without succumbing to rolling her eyes in embarrassment) encourages him, not because of his words, but because he’s ravenous for power, which will aid her position in society. She’s seeking a protector and he fits the bill.

But, oh, the sex. Who knew the Corsican could be so charmless — and such a bad lay? Perfunctory at best. Scott’s Napoleon knows nothing from foreplay. He shows his desire first by an odd humming. Then he hums some more. Josephine looks bewildered and impatient under the smile she knows she has to have at this moment. Then he stamps a foot on the floor as if he were a stallion expressing interest in a mare. What’s worse, or sillier, is the sex that follows. He takes her from behind without any apparent interest in her pleasure.

In an awards season sub-theme, women’s sexual satisfaction is firmly controlled by the man of the story, whether it be Napoleon, or Elvis in “Priscilla” or Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro.”

Let’s shift to what really interests Scott. War. The battles. He excels in his signature smoke-filled battlegrounds where men are men and horses are often shredded by cannonballs. This is where the heart of the adventure can be found, one battle following the next. (Cue the supertitles.) Kill. Victory. Napoleon looking intent over his massive troops, his face a neoclassical mask in that style of the painter David.

In the ultimate spoiler, the movie’s trailer reveals the film’s most exciting confrontation in 1805, The Battle of Austerlitz aka The Battle of Three Emperors. Although plagued with smoke, it’s colorless to the point of nearly black-and-white footage until the inevitable flow of blood: red, swirling, pooling, and never to clot again.

Finally the audience witnesses the existential cost of the Napoleon complex: someday your confidence will overcome your common sense. Splat. Kill. Defeat.
There’s spectacle aplenty — you, go, Sir Ridley Scott — but the overall effect of this dry, unintentionally funny epic is far from spectacular.

“Napoleon” is in theaters November 22.


One response to “‘Napoleon’ Review: Ridley Scott’s Epic Revels in Blood and Nothing Else”

  1. Li Avatar

    I haven’t seen the movie but ads. I’m surprised that Ridley didn’t use an European actor vs. one who talks like a Brooklynite.

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