Spectacular battle scenes quash epic love story in lengthy historical drama 'Napoleon'

  • Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) is a so-called "Corsican thug" who becomes Emperor of France in Ridley Scott's epic "Napoleon."

    Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) is a so-called "Corsican thug" who becomes Emperor of France in Ridley Scott's epic "Napoleon." Courtesy of Apple TV+

 
 
Updated 11/23/2023 9:57 AM

"Napoleon" -- ★ ★

I'm almost embarrassed to admit that while watching Ridley Scott's ambitious movie about an ambitious French soldier who would be emperor, I kept thinking about a similar motion picture that never saw the light of exposed film.

 

Film historians and critics know well how Stanley Kubrick meticulously and laboriously prepared to shoot his own "Napoleon."

The battle-heavy epic "Napoleon" traces the long and tormented romance between Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) and an aristocratic widow named Josephine (Vanessa Kirby).
The battle-heavy epic "Napoleon" traces the long and tormented romance between Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) and an aristocratic widow named Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). - Courtesy of Apple TV+

Things looked good, until along came an impressively accurate 1970 Soviet Union/Italy coproduction "Waterloo," starring Rod Steiger as Napoleon Bonaparte. It tanked at the box office, and United Artists pulled out, leaving Kubrick to recycle his research into his lushly realized 1975 period piece "Barry Lyndon."

So, while watching Scott's "Napoleon," this question kept creeping into my brain: What would Kubrick do?

Something better than this 158-minute dramatic slog bolstered by tightly orchestrated, highly detailed battle sequences that Kubrick might actually admire.

Joaquin Phoenix infuses his portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte with unpredictable ego in Ridley Scott's epic "Napoleon."
Joaquin Phoenix infuses his portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte with unpredictable ego in Ridley Scott's epic "Napoleon." - Courtesy of Apple TV+
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Even so, by the time we get around to witnessing Napoleon's historic defeat at Waterloo, our capacity to appreciate gory, well-crafted encounters of soldiers, muskets, cannons and swords has reached a saturation point.

What would Kubrick do?

Probably take a cue from his "Eyes Wide Shut" by concentrating on the complex, fascinating relationship between the two lead characters, Napoleon and Josephine, a spunky, attractive widow he marries two years after meeting her at a "Survivors Ball."

Newly declared Emperor of France Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) crowns his wife, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), in the spectacular but dramatically dinged epic "Napoleon."
Newly declared Emperor of France Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) crowns his wife, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), in the spectacular but dramatically dinged epic "Napoleon." - Courtesy of Apple TV+

The always watchable Joaquin Phoenix presents Napoleon as a capricious, socially awkward man of keen, strategic intelligence and a delusional ego. Vanessa Kirby brings a sly sexuality and a spine of steel to the aristocratic Josephine, a perfect, tempered foil for Napoleon, who, under an adherence to national duty, eventually kicks her to a French curb for failing to supply a requisite heir.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"You are nothing without me!" she says during a marital spat, turning her husband's cruel, earlier declaration into a scathingly accurate parry.

"Napoleon" cries out to be a marvelous story of conflicted conditional love, not a studied, battle-stuffed epic as Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa force it to be. The supporting characters barely get enough screentime to establish themselves anyway, outside of Rupert Everett's scowling Duke of Wellington.

Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix, third from left) leads French troops into one of many battles during Ridley Scott's epic "Napoleon."
Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix, third from left) leads French troops into one of many battles during Ridley Scott's epic "Napoleon." - Courtesy of Apple TV+

Granted, Scott's visceral rendering of the bloody Battle of Austerlitz -- in which Russian and Austrian troops meet cold death beneath a frozen lake broken up by Bonaparte's cannon balls -- highlights the movie.

But the battles give us more spectacle than thrills, more action than suspense, leaving Kirby's charismatic, finely layered performance as the film's strongest asset.

Kubrick would probably approve of her. After 116 takes.

• • •

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Rupert Everett

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Other: A Columbia Pictures theatrical release. Rated R for language, sexual situations, violence. 158 minutes

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