At a time when arguments about authoritarianism have swamped much of the public discourse, it's easy to understand why director Ridley Scott was interested in bringing a story about Napoleon to the screen with the always nervy Joaquin Phoenix in the title role.
Phoenix remains one of Hollywood's most adventurous actors. In Napoleon, he creates a lumbering, dour general who became an emperor with a weakness, an over-reliance on his wife, Josephine (a sly Vanessa Kirby).
For Napoleon, Josephine functions like a good-luck charm. He needs her. He pines for her while doing his day job; i.e., conquering the world.
Sex scenes between Napoleon and Josephine demonstrate his lack of subtlety and her lack of interest. Taking Josephine from behind, he approaches sex as if he were leading a charge on the battlefield.
Assertive and ambitious, Josephine shows only passing interest in fidelity. Not surprisingly, Napoleon isn't happy about his wife's digressions -- or much of anything else for that matter.
Though never dwelled on, the movie finds time to make a joke about Napoleon's fabled lack of height, but mostly Napoleon is the boulder around which the rest of the movie flows.
The movie could have been called The Battles of Napoleon. Scott stages sweeping battle sequences that include Napoleon's triumph at Austerlitz and, of course, his downfall at Waterloo.
I'm no expert on 19th Century military maneuvers but Scott seems to be; he understands the tactics employed in each battle. In a stunning sequence on a lake during Austerlitz, canon balls crack the ice as bleeding soldier's sink into the freezing depths.
Scott's mastery of scale makes us aware of how brutal, open-field warfare could be. During the course of Napoleon's epic career, about three million soldiers (French and otherwise) died on battlefields.
A note here: At a time when action sequences often degenerate into indecipherable blurs, Scott gives a master class in how they should be done.
The movie leaps through history as if it were in danger of evaporating. It's left to Phoenix to sketch Napoleon's character with scowls, exclamations that can sound anachronistic, and the establishment of a bulky presence.
A leader at the Siege of Toulon, Napoleon rose out of France's post-revolutionary chaos to become a ruler who, in this rendering, seems more persistent than cunning. He was also legacy conscious. Distraught because Josephine couldn't provide him an heir to his throne, Napoleon divorced her; he quickly found a substitute who sired a son.
It's indicative of both the film's focus and failings that few of the supporting characters in Scott's large cast are given much opportunity to standout. At times, the characters seem buried under churning hunks of French history, which slide by like chunks dislodged from a melting iceberg.
Admirable in bits and pieces, some spectacular, Napoleon left me feeling as if I'd watched a slightly cynical historical recreation rather than a brilliant reinterpretation of history. And for all its attempts to remind us of old-fashioned epics, one can't help but be surprised that Napoleon doesn't make a deeper impression.
A four-hour version of the movie will be seen when it's released on Apple TV+. I'm eager to see it because even at two hours and 38 minutes, this one feels truncated. I couldn't help thinking that there must have been more to this conquering egotistical lout than Napoleon reveals.
Unless Scott wanted to tell us that history sometimes can revolve around an oafish leader -- providing, of course, that he has an army at his disposal.