For a film taken with the idea of war, with massive campaigns involving many extras, horses and armaments, and large portions of its extended running time dedicated to the bitter, bloody waging of these full-throat battles, Ridley Scott seems to take tremendous pleasure in showing his titular hero Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix), as a kind of infantilized sop.
During his first battle we see him wage, amid all the clamor of guns and screaming, we subtly hear Napoleon's labored breathing, first, in anxiousness, awaiting the start of the attack, but then with him running toward the enemy's castle-like lair, and straining to climb up the ladders placed by his men to breach the place. He might be a military legend, but in Scott's rendition, he's more like a middle-aged actuary on the first day of boot camp class.
At other junctures, Scott takes similar pains to clown Napoleon -- at one point, the famously diminutive General and eventual Emperor has to stand on a case of ammunition in front of an open sarcophagus so he can reach the mummy's face -- and diminish him ("Just because you have a bunch of ships, you think you're so great!" he whines at a British military diplomat).
Perhaps it's simply a revered Brit taking some further shots at the Franco ego. (While we're here: It also seems peculiar to have an American actor, even one of Phoenix's renown, playing one of the legendary French military figures: It's as if George Washington were being played by Gerard Depardieu.) But there's also the very real idea that, for all his military acumen, Napoleon was essentially a nerd. Eventually he would lead the charge, but men didn't revere him for strength or stature, they just loved that when he waged battles with them they had the strategic advantage.
It's interestingly counter-intuitive to stage a nearly three-hour epic bio-pic about a military genius and spend half the time showing him to be petulant, overwhelmed -- and, regarding his wife, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), disrespected and marginalized. But while it makes for an interesting angle, it doesn't fully mask the film's turgidity. Too many scenes play like a greatest hits package, and, as much screen time as Phoenix and Kirby have together, Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa don't go much beyond the surface of the couples' bizarrely complex relationship.
In battle, he comes across as a short, slightly portly wonk -- like a successful football coach who never played the game. In one of the film's best scenes, fighting against the Austrians and Brits over frozen tundra, Napoleon executes a flim-flam that decimates the combined armies of his enemies and -- finally! -- suggests just why it was he was so revered in the first place.
Off the battlefield, Scott delights in reducing him to an object of scorn and ridicule, from Josephine's recurring cuckoldings, to his mother's distant disapproval. Phoenix exposes these far less flattering adornments of the Emperor's finery with pitiless abandon. Interacting with his domineering mother (Sinéad Cusack), and reedy brother (Matthew Needham), it's easy to imagine young Napoleon, desperate to earn his mother's affection.
That he nonetheless comes across as a preening jackass is a testament, of sorts, to Scott's counter-intuitive vision (and, quite a switch from the director's treatment of other military types, as with Russell Crowe's ever-heroic turn in "Gladiator"). Still, for all the film's refusal to canonize its protagonist, it doesn't have terribly much to offer beyond its mocking portrayal of the former general, and the peppering in of expansive battle sequences in between.
What might have been a fascinating exploration of the dichotomy in Napoleon's psyche -- his mastery of the battlefield, and hopelessness outside of it -- slogs its way through too many flat scenes as he and Josephine negotiate their outré relationship. Squint, you can almost see something along the lines of the tempestuous, particularized fetishings of the couple from P.T. Anderson's "Phantom Thread," but where that film delved into the granular peculiarities of its protagonists, Scott's skims along the surface
The end result is sluggish. Whatever insight it might have to offer about the Emperor gets diluted with a great deal of dishwater. It's like '90s-era sitcom: Napoleon, brilliant in battle; hopeless at love. He's got the strategic acumen, but his dating profile is hopeless.
82 Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Mark Bonnar, Rupert Everett, Youssef Kerkour, Ian McNeice, Ben Miles, Paul Rhys, Ludivine Sagnier, Edouard Philipponnat, Sinéad Cusack, Matthew Needham
Director: Ridley Scott
Running time: 2 hours, 38 minutes