Applauded for his military brilliance yet admonished for his crude arrogance, French leader Napoleon Bonaparte charts an indelible journey through history in “Napoleon.”
Historical epics are a signature calling card for acclaimed director Ridley Scott (“Gladiator,” “The Last Duel” and “Kingdom of Heaven”). When challenged with unwrapping Napoleon’s ubiquitous persona, Scott rises to the occasion in ways that fit comfortably within his skill set and stretch boldly into invigorating new territory.
Few exhibit Scott’s eye for visceral grandeur. Even at 86, the poised auteur still conjures bludgeoning battle scenes and sweeping vistas with emphatic command. The hard-hitting realism driving Scott’s grisly battle scenes has always struck a chord, but including Napoleon’s perspective incorporates an ominous layer of subtext. We witness hundreds sprinting into the fiery infernos of war, likely being sentenced to their demise in the process. As countless soldiers perish, Napoleon stands static behind the battlefield, maneuvering different commands with an oppressively apathetic expression. We see that war’s purpose and the ample losses it achieves never matter much to Napoleon; it exists only as a forum for him to display his stature as an accomplished general.
Searing indictments like this are prevalent in Scott’s insightful biopic. He and screenwriter David Scarpa slice through Napoleon’s flaws and insecurities with a razor-sharp cutlass, leaving no stone unturned in showcasing a man consumed by status and power at the cost of his own happiness. The screenplay occasionally suffers from the all-too-common Wikipedia storytelling trope of highlighting every bullet point in a figure’s life. Still, Scott and Scarpa energize these segments with more vigor than most biopic contemporaries.
Perhaps the best surprise buried within “Napoleon” is its cunning humor, mainly expressed through the relationship between Napoleon and his lover, Empress Josephine. While Napoleon dominates all who oppose him, Josephine stands as his one foil — a voice of reason who often plays on his emotions like an instrument.
The contentious yet ultimately loving connection between the pair is the film’s beating heart, showcasing equal levity and pathos as the two flex their authority over each other. This cat-and-mouse game of hubris exposes many of Napoleon’s inadequacies, with the film cleverly taking form as an exceedingly relevant satire on the misguided nature of ego-driven politicians. Dynamic performances from Joaquin Phoenix as the cruel and buffoonish Napoleon and Vannessa Kirby as Josephine also inject gravitas into roles that would feel one-dimensional in lesser hands.
After sifting through an onslaught of voiceless biopics, “Napoleon” delivers a refreshing breath of fresh air. Scott and company have composed a pointed affair that recontextualizes an iconic figure with intellect and impact.