Sometimes, the past can show us the flaws we carry in the present.
Directed by Ridley Scott, Napoleon is a dramatic look into one of history’s most notorious leaders. Set in the late 1700s, Napoleon follows iconic French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) as he begins his rise to power. As a young military leader, Napoleon shows much ambition and promise yet stubbornly prideful. Even so, his greatest addiction may lie at the feet of his one true love, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). A woman of great cunning, Josephine’s fate becomes entangled in Napoleon’s career begins to explode.
In many ways, the film feels like a return to form for Scott. Having received mixed results for his work over the last few years, the iconic director seems to be enjoying himself with a film on such a grand scale. Although Napoleon feels a little long with its three-hour runtime (and a four-hour cut on the way), Scott weaves a story that feels like a throwback to a bygone era. This is a historical epic on a massive scale, the like of which we have not seen onscreen in some time.
Despite its three-hour runtime, the film seems to move along at a brisk pace. Even if the dialogue feels clunky in moments, character interactions and moments of political intrigue generally work. But it’s the battle scenes where Scott truly comes alive. As the director of such films as Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, Scott understands his way around the battlefield. As such, one can feel the energy that he pours into these moments. By the film’s final sequence, Scott unleashes his fury on the audience. Cannon fire, calvary advances and massive squadrons of infantry battling one another are bloody, brutal and bold. It’s these moments that are a sight to behold and most worth the price of admission.
Interestingly, although he remains the backbone of the film, Napoleon is no hero. Instead, Phoenix depicts Napoleon as a tempestuous child. Here, Napoleon is shown to be a man who feels inadequate in virtually every area of his life. Known for his short height, Scott uses Bonaparte’s size as a motivating factor for his drive for power. To him, victory is essential in order to maintain his grip upon leadership. Even sexuality seems to be about conquest.
Yet, underneath the bravado, we soon realize that this Emperor has no clothes.
In each area of his life, Napoleon longs to be in control yet struggles to hide his feelings of inadequacy. Unless he is conquering on the battlefield, Napoleon feels powerless. When challenged about his military, he loses his calm over the need for boats. Fearing that his wife may be having an affair, he attempts to make her submit to his authority, only to have his demands reversed.
Napoleon’s grip on power isn’t real. And he knows it.
In this way, Napoleon becomes a cautionary tale about the broken souls of our leaders. While the film may be set 200 years in the past, his journey reveals the sorts of Machiavellian machinations that can affect our leadership in the present. Although Napoleon claims to have the peoples’ best interests in view, he’s really looking to secure his own legacy. As his inner brokenness is exposed, Napoleon’s insecurities infect his quest for power. It’s on this level that the film feels most current as it exposes the sorts of failings that can create toxic leadership. Scott treats Napoleon as an example of human frailty and ego, seemingly demanding that the audience expect more from our leaders today.
Because, even if times have changed, humanity hasn’t.
Set on a massive scale, Scott’s flair for the dramatic serves him well with this historical epic. With a massive scale and scope, Napoleon simple feels like the type of film that doesn’t get made anymore. As such, while it likely won’t conquer the awards season, Napoleon does manage to pull off a solid victory.
Napoleon is available in theatres on Friday, November 22nd, 2023.