It’s quite fun to watch Napoleon alongside Ridley Scott’s most famous historical epic, Best Picture winner Gladiator. While Gladiator is more or less just an extremely well-made prestige film that hits all the right notes by traditional standards for this type of film, Scott is doing something very different with his latter-day epics. Napoleon is not an exciting film meant to inspire you or make you feel good. Rather, this story aims to demystify history by demonstrating that Napoleon Bonaparte was just an ordinary man responsible for millions of deaths. And it’s a lot more fun to watch than a more serious version probably would have been.
And probably more accurate too. As humans, we tend to think of ourselves as very serious people who only make intelligent and calculated decisions, but we know very well that this is not true: we are all a bunch of idiots. Nonetheless, we like to salute major historical figures so that we can put them on a pedestal as exemplars of the human race, and Bonaparte was certainly one of those larger-than-life figures.
But the Bonaparte we see in Napoleon is not treated as such. Sure, he wins a few battles over the course of the film’s two and a half hours, but the focus here is on Napoleon as a person, not the strategist. And it’s much more interesting, at least when it’s Ridley Scott doing the emphasis.
Napoleon begins in 1793 with the execution of Marie-Antoinette, which Napoleon witnesses. It’s an impressive scene, with the Queen having fruit thrown at her as she walks towards the guillotine, the film taking us through the entire process of Marie Antoinette being placed in the device and then losing her mind. This is a very experiential sequence, taking the audience through the execution in a way that makes us feel like we are experiencing all the ordinariness of the moment as well as its significance. It’s a major historical moment, yes, but for Napoleon, it’s also only a Tuesday.
From there, the film takes us through most of Napoleon’s greatest successes, from breaking the siege of Toulan early in his rise to his exile on St. Helena. But, again, it’s not really about all that. This movie doesn’t try to show you what a cool and smart guy Napoleon is, nor does it try to serve as an overall, completely historically accurate portrait of the man. Instead, the main thread focuses on his infatuation with Joséphine De Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby) and how this infatuation influenced his decision-making during his rise to power and subsequent reign as first consul then as emperor.
To help make this point, we have several sex scenes featuring Napoleon Bonaparte, and they’re all pretty awkward. One of them begins when Napoleon interrupts Joséphine while she is having her hair done, by doing a stupid little dance to tell her that he is ready to love – Joséphine protests, but Napoleon does not stop his excited little dance, and finally gives in. Cut to Joséphine who seems bored while Napoleon does his work. He’s not exactly portrayed as a good or caring lover during these scenes.
After breaking out with his role in the first two seasons of The Crown, which I always read as a very dry satire, Kirby feels right at home with this not-quite-serious version of the great. She’s so comfortable here that she has no problem regularly wresting control of the screen from Phoenix, who I think might have been channeling her Joker a little too much. He’s still a lot of fun, but Kirby frequently steals the show.
But the real star remains Ridley Scott, 85, who brings everything he has to this film. And bless him for doing it – despite his and Martin Scorcese’s efforts, the mega-budget historical epic is a dying genre, and few other filmmakers could create such spectacular historical battle scenes . These days, Napoleon is one of a kind: a very expensive historical epic that spends much of its time making fun of its very famous main subject, without really treating him with any respect. When Napoleon brags about his prowess as a military leader, it always seems a bit silly. And he brags a lot! But that’s the point.
Along those same lines, I’m really intrigued by this tonal tone that Scott’s films have taken recently. His last three films – Napoleon, House of Gucci and The Last Duel – are all based on true stories that don’t have much love for the people they’re about. While these three films were each a bit longer than they probably should have been (they’re all north of two and a half hours), I’m completely fine with their disdain for people powerful. Jodie Comer’s Lady Marguerite in The Last Duel is the only main character in these three films who isn’t treated like the butt of a joke. I find this way of seeing the world quite endearing and accurate: rich and powerful people generally don’t have many tangible positive qualities.
And on a human level, no, military prowess isn’t really a positive quality in most situations. Once Josephine dies and Napoleon’s story ends on St. Helena, the film contains an important little postscript: it lists the large number of people who died as a result of each of Napoleon’s “great” campaigns. This is the lesson you’re supposed to leave the theater with: it doesn’t matter how stupid Napoleon was as a general, because ultimately he was just a guy personally responsible for an unfathomable number of deaths.
And anyway, he wasn’t a very cool person. This film treats Napoleon with about the same respect that The Last Duel had for Matt Damon’s Jean des Carrouges – very little – and perhaps that’s exactly how it should be.