Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is a pointless film and an exercise in lazy storytelling. It was not born of an idea; or rather, it was born only of the idea that money might be made from a generic movie about Napoleon Bonaparte.
There is no premise, and so nothing worthy of being called a plot. If you’re interested in this film you’ll know that Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) seized power in post-Revolutionary France, crowned himself emperor, won a bunch of battles, launched a doomed invasion of Russia, lost at Waterloo, and died in exile. And if you know all that then you don’t need to see Napoleon. Meandering from scene to disconnected scene, the film simply ticks off some headline moments in Napoleon’s life. Here he is thrusting the French crown onto his own head. Here he is again, inscrutable, observing a battle and covering his ears as the cannons fire. There is no sense of what happens in between, and consequently no structure, no coherence and no impetus.
In a charitable mood, you can see what the premise was supposed to be: Napoleon, the conqueror of Europe, fighting a private war in his relationship with Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby). We alternate between the two sides of the film. Unfortunately, they are equally weak. Joséphine is devoid of personality. Voiceover excerpts from Napoleon’s love letters can’t infuse the on-screen relationship with believability or emotion.
The two halves of the story fail to gel, creating a scattergun feel. Moments of gore and flashes of odd comedy add to the unevenness.
In trying to do too much, the film does not try to do anything worthwhile at all. It is neither intimate nor epic. If it wants to be a biopic, it fails. Napoleon desires greatness, we are told, but why? He thinks greatness is his destiny, but why? Where did he come from? How does a man who fought monarchism end up crowning himself emperor and trying to conquer Europe? What is he like as a person? Brilliant, inspirational, insecure, and, as he reached the peak of his power, increasingly heedless of contradictory advice — according to history. But Scott’s Napoleon has little more personality than Joséphine, and is equally bereft of backstory and character change.
He might as well be a boy playing with toy soldiers rather than the protagonist in a Europe-wide war.
If Napoleon wants to be a historical movie, it still fails. Things happen in a near-vacuum. Napoleon pops up in location after location without us understanding why he’s there or why we should care. He might as well be a boy playing with toy soldiers rather than the protagonist in a Europe-wide war. The real Bonaparte changed the course of the history of an entire continent; Scott’s Napoleon scarcely propels the action in his own movie. The performances, visuals and score are good, but vainly so in service of a weak script. In hindsight, the movie’s title — grandiose, but obvious and empty — is a warning. There are a thousand good films to be made about Napoleon. This is none of them.