It’s quite amusing to look at Napoleon next to Ridley Scott’s most famous historical epic, the Best Picture-winner Gladiator. While Gladiator is more or less just an extremely well-made prestige film that hits all the right notes according to the traditional standards for that type of movie, Scott is doing something very different with his latter-day epics. Napoleon isn’t a rousing film meant to inspire you or make you feel good–this story is instead meant to demystify history by demonstrating that Napoleon Bonaparte was just a regular guy who was responsible for millions of deaths. And that’s a lot more fun to watch than a more self-serious version probably would have been.
And likely more accurate, too. We, as humans, have a tendency to think of ourselves as very serious people who make only smart and calculated decisions, but we simultaneously know very well that isn’t true–we’re all a bunch of idiots. Nonetheless, we like to lionize major historical figures so we can hold them up on a pedestal as exemplars of the human race, and Bonaparte has certainly been one such larger-than-life figure.
But the Bonaparte we see in Napoleon isn’t treated as such. Sure, he wins some battles over the course of the film’s two-and-a-half hours of running time, but the emphasis here is on Napoleon the person, not the strategist. And that’s far more interesting, at least when it’s Ridley Scott doing the emphasizing.
Napoleon begins in 1793 with the execution of Marie Antoinette, which Napoleon witnesses. It’s an awesome scene, with the queen being pelted with fruit as she makes her way to the guillotine, the film taking us through the full process of Marie Antoinette being placed into the device and then losing her head to it. It’s a very experiential sequence, taking the audience through the execution in a way that makes us feel like we’re experiencing the full mundanity of the moment as well as the significance of it. It’s a major historical moment, yes, but in Napoleon, it’s also just a Tuesday..
From there, the film takes us through most of Napoleon’s greatest hits, from breaking the siege at Toulan at the start of his rise to his exile to St. Helena. But, again, it’s not really about all that. This film isn’t trying to show you what a cool and smart guy Napoleon is, and it also isn’t trying to serve as an all-encompassing, completely-historically-accurate portrait of the man. Instead, the core thread is focused on his infatuation with Josephine De Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby) and how that infatuation informed so much of his decision-making during his rise to power and subsequent reign as First Consul and then as Emperor.
To help make that point, we get multiple sex scenes featuring Napoleon Bonaparte, and they’re all pretty awkward. One of these begins when Napoleon interrupts Josephine while she’s getting her hair done, doing a stupid little dance to tell her that he’s ready for love–Josephine protests, but Napoleon won’t stop doing his little horny dance, and eventually she gives in. Cut to Josephine looking very bored while Napoleon does his thing. He’s not exactly portrayed as a good or caring lover during these scenes.
After breaking out with her role in the first two seasons of The Crown, which I’ve always read as a very dry satire, Kirby feels right at home with this not-entirely-serious take on the great . She’s so comfortable here that she has no problem regularly wresting command of the screen away from Phoenix, who I think might have been channeling his Joker a little too much. He’s still a lot of fun, but Kirby steals the show frequently.
But the real star is still the 85-year-old Ridley Scott, who brings everything he’s got to this film. And bless him for doing it–despite his and Martin Scorcese’s efforts, the mega-budgeted historical epic is a dying genre, and few other filmmakers could craft historical battle scenes this spectacular. In the present day, Napoleon is one of a kind: a very expensive historical epic that spends much of its running time mocking its very famous main subject, and not really treating him with any reverence whatsoever. When Napoleon brags about his prowess as a military leader, it always sounds kinda silly. And he brags a lot! But that’s the point.
Along those lines, I’m really intrigued by this tonal bent Scott’s movies have taken recently. His last three films–Napoleon, House of Gucci, and The Last Duel–have all been based-on-a-true-story tales that have no great love for the people they’re about. While these three movies have each been a bit longer than they probably needed to be (they all run north of two-and-a-half hours), I’m so on board with their scorn for powerful people. Jodie Comer’s Lady Marguerite in The Last Duel is the only main character across those three movies who isn’t treated as the butt of a joke. I find this way of looking at the world to be quite endearing and accurate–rich and powerful people don’t usually have many tangible positive qualities.
And in human terms, no, military prowess is not really a positive quality in most situations. Once Josephine has died and Napoleon’s story is wrapped up on St. Helena, the film contains an important little postscript: It lists the huge numbers 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 dope Napoleon was as a general, because he was ultimately just some guy who was personally responsible for an unfathomable amount of death.
And also, he wasn’t that cool of a person anyway. This film treats Napoleon with about the same amount of respect that The Last Duel had for Matt Damon’s Jean des Carrouges–very little–and maybe that’s exactly how it should be.