Did you hear the one about how director Ridley Scott plans to bring his new historical drama Napoleon to the Apple+ streaming platform with an extra hour of material? That’s pretty ballsy for a filmmaker whose theatrical version plays so heavy on the whats and whens and dismally lacks the whys and hows. Of course, Scott practically invented the director’s cut thing with his 4,000 versions of Blade Runner, but it would still be cool to get a complete film when we pay so much to see it on a big screen. Sacré bleu!
Yes, Napoleon is a gorgeous film full of huge battles and explosions and horse guts and stuff, but its bizarre combination of breakneck pacing and tedium make the passage of time confusing. Somehow, we get a pretty boring film about a fascinating figure.
Likely exhausting chore-of-a-person and character actor Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) tackles the role of Napoleon Bonaparte, a Corsican with a chip on his shoulder who rose through the ranks of the French military to become a citizen, a general and even the freaking emperor of France. It’s all in there, from the time he...did that one thing, to the time he did that other thing; got exiled, came back—and then got exiled again! And though Phoenix’s jabs at playing the man as impudent or even childlike—at least in his life off the battlefield—come close to working, he never goes about making Napoleon feel like a human.
Oh, I can hear the film’s defenders now: “You’re not supposed to like him!” Fair enough. And the real-life Napoleon did some absolutely wild things that are worth knowing. But rather than cramming the film with Braveheart-esque cinematic battle scenes, Scott might have focused a little more on Bonaparte’s muse and one-time wife Josephine (Vanessa Kirby, The Crown). Kirby is excellently strange and casts emotionally devastating glances; exchanges between her and Napoleon prove the most powerful moments in the film. In fact, screenwriter David Scarpa’s dialogue truly sings when it’s just the two of them, but before you know it, it’s back to the cannons and the British accents that cinema has decided will work as stand-ins for any non-American roles. Phoenix doesn’t do the accent thing, thankfully.
The more practical elements of moviemaking prove excellent throughout the film, however, from costumers David Crossman and Janty Yates’ brilliant takes on French garb throughout decades to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s (News of the World) endless parade of gorgeous shots. But a film can be excellent under the hood and just not particularly engrossing. Perhaps if Mr. Scott chooses to release some definitive-only-for-realsies-and-I-totally-mean-it-this-time version down the road, we’ll get a more complete experience.
+Shot beautifully, Kirby’s enjoyably weird performance
-Phoenix feels hollow; too fast for anything to land
Directed by Scott
With Phoenix and Kirby
Violet Crown, Regal, R, 158 min.