Ridley Scott's "Napoleon," an epic war film boasting a grand budget, is a collection of impressive battle scenes in search of a more cohesive narrative. Despite Scott's renowned directorial skills, the film suffers from a superficial script that fails to bring vigor or depth to the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix. The film's failure to connect pivotal events in Napoleon's life results in a disjointed experience, with the central character often appearing as a mere shadow and his love interest, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), feeling flat and underdeveloped.
David Scarpa's screenplay ambitiously attempts to encapsulate Napoleon's tumultuous journey—from his ascent during the French Revolution to his ultimate demise in 1821. An early highlight is the depiction of the Siege of Toulon in 1793, where Phoenix subtly conveys Napoleon's anxiety, offering a glimpse into a potentially more nuanced character portrayal that the film regrettably doesn't pursue. This sequence, marked by its meticulous attention to detail and graphic realism, stands out in a film that otherwise struggles to emotionally engage its audience.
The relationship between Napoleon and Josephine, meant to be the emotional core of the film, falls flat. Their romance, articulated through voiceovers of Napoleon's passionate letters, lacks the fervor and intensity it needs. Kirby's portrayal of Josephine misses the mark, rendering her character more as a reflection of Napoleon than as a fully realized individual. Her eventual fade from the narrative, unable to bear Napoleon an heir, further diminishes her impact.
"Napoleon" misses an opportunity to delve deeply into the psyche of one of history's most infamous leaders. The film shies away from making any profound statement about Napoleon or his type of leadership, both historically and in contemporary times. Phoenix's restrained performance, avoiding the cliché of a mad, power-hungry ruler, lacks the depth and complexity needed for such a monumental figure.
Despite these narrative shortcomings, "Napoleon" excels in its portrayal of war. The film's battle sequences, filled with visceral energy and technical brilliance, might appeal to enthusiasts of historical war dramas. These scenes suggest that Napoleon was most in his element amidst chaos and death, a theme that could have been more fully explored.
Ultimately, "Napoleon" fails to live up to Scott's reputation for crafting films with substantial depth and resonance. Unlike his previous works, which often take bold creative risks, "Napoleon" feels surprisingly subdued and lacks a clear vision. Even as the film reaches the iconic Battle of Waterloo, viewers are left with no deeper understanding of Napoleon than they had at the outset. This lack of character exploration is a significant flaw in a film about such a complex historical figure.
In summary, while "Napoleon" showcases remarkable battle scenes and technical skill, it falls short in delivering a compelling narrative or insightful character study. Its disjointed structure and failure to explore the intricacies of Napoleon's character result in a film that, despite its grand scale, feels surprisingly small and unsatisfying.