Napoleon, one of the more significant humans of all time, was a weird little guy. That’s the central conceit in director Ridley Scott’s Napoleon. His film does ostensibly have political intrigue, romance, and massive battle scenes, but what ends up being most memorable about it are all the wacky things Napoleon says and does during his rise and fall. Somehow, that doesn’t feel quite right.
Tapped to don the familiar hat and appear shorter than everyone else, Joaquin Phoenix leads Napoleon as the eponymous man, bringing his usual verve and unique presence to the role. Since Napoleon is a larger-than-life figure, it is refreshing to watch Phoenix humanize him. Scott’s film follows this tack too (as written by David Scarpa), building much of its dramatic arc around Napoleon’s relationship with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). In this, the film gets at the little general’s idiosyncrasies, but never quite makes the case for why everyone else fell (and stayed) in line as he conquered Europe. As his pride undoes him, Phoenix’s version of the man feels true enough, but other than an eye for cannon placement, what made him tick? Why did he want what he wanted? Was he just a savant who desired power? That last question feels fair to ask—even after 150 minutes—which is a sure sign that something is off with Scott’s film. In fact, as a post-script lists off the casualties in Napoleon’s battles, it’s almost hard to tell if the film is aghast or nodding along. No matter, it settles on a more straightforward—and cliché—message in short order: love makes you do crazy things.
Speaking of which, as a man forever in love with the “director’s cut,” Scott has already said there is a 4-hour version of Napoleon as if acknowledging this critical absence from his film. Will that hypothetical cut redeem this one? It may fill in some blanks, but it feels just as likely the fundamental issues will remain. In any case, try as he might, Scott can’t rewrite his own history now.