Movie geeks love to discuss the unmade movies of Stanley Kubrick, one of cinema’s great lion directors. Kubrick toiled for years to direct a biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte, and when he passed in 1999, the unmade film became one of the great “What ifs?” of Hollywood.
Now Kubrick’s friend and longtime admirer, Ridley Scott, wades where Kubrick feared to tread. Scott’s Napoleon aims to cover much of the same ground as Kubrick had intended. The film tells the story of the titular general's rise during the French Revolution to becoming one of the most consequential military leaders in history—not to mention one of the most powerful men in the world—as well as his romance with his sometime wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais. Scott seems fascinated by the origins of such ambition (and likely identifies with it). At its best, Napoleon offers glimmers of what made the man tick. Yet, for all the pageantry, three game performances by the leading actors, and Scott’s engineering of epic battles, the movie never quite conquers the screen.
Early in the film, Joaquin Phoenix, in the title role, makes some very interesting choices with his performance. Though he captures the usual gravitas and desire for power that comes standard to actors playing Napoleon (Wikipedia lists no less than 32 performers playing the role, and that doesn’t include TV portrayals), Phoenix’s early scenes evoke some of the actor’s work on Joker. He plays Napoleon as a mix of nervous ticks, fidgets and stammers—in other words, as a very awkward nerd. This image contrasts with the usual hubris and gravitas associated with the character as a towering (if diminutive) military leader.
This nerdy Napoleon seizes a moment during France’s Reign of Terror, in which aristocrats, or just about anyone else could end up on the Guillotine. Napoleon manages to consolidate power within the army and bring order to the chaos of France. This leadership makes him immensely popular among the French masses. His rise also coincides with his first meeting with Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), a slinky woman for whom Napoleon develops an immediate attraction.
One of the film’s best scenes concerns the first “date” between the widowed Joséphine and the ever-ambitious title character. Napoleon seems too nervous to speak, and has no idea how to talk to a woman. Joséphine compounds his insecurity by lifting her skirt and inviting the general to see something he will “always desire.” The scene doesn’t play as high romance so much as farce: our audience cackled like mad at the awkwardness between the two lovers.
Indeed, the biggest surprise in Napoleon is just how much humor Scott manages to find in the material. Much of that comes from the Joséphine-Napoleon relationship, which portrays the latter as an amorous child, ever-obsessed with his wife’s body. Phoenix plays the character in these scenes like a yappy dog. Kirby, by contrast, rolls her eyes and pictures herself elsewhere. Scott has always had a knack for offering insight and empathy to the women in his films. No doubt Joséphine would have much to discuss with Ellen Ripley, Thelma or Louise.
Scott further hints that Napoleon’s obsessive love for Joséphine drives him to crown himself Emperor of France, as well as to conquer much of the continent. But despite the film’s long runtime—157 minutes—and for all the awkward love scenes, the director only offers hints to the interior motives of his lead character. The movie moves at a brisk pace despite its long duration, but we have a hard time looking at Napoleon and not thinking Scott sacrificed key elements of his character study in the name of a shorter movie. At times, Napoleon seems heroic, while at others, he acts like a blustery Braggadocio. These contrasts don’t feel like two opposing poles of a complicated character so much as inconsistencies. Phoenix commits to the part, but Scott’s edits have robbed his character of connective tissue.
For that matter, Scott doesn’t seem to have a clear statement about Napoleon as a person or a historical figure. Given that the director built his own legend by asking deep questions about life (Blade Runner, Alien) or making profound statements about his characters (Thelma & Louise, American Gangster), it seems impossible that Scott would express ambivalence over such a hotly-debated historical figure.
Yet Napoleon can’t decide if its title figure was a good person or a bad person, a hero or a despot, good for world affairs or detrimental too them. The film breezes past important historical and political points; one minute, Napoleon does battle with Russia and Austria. The next minute, he’s united all of Europe. Scott never bothers to examine how or why Napoleon’s alliances shifted or what the rest of the world thought about him. Pivotal characters, such as Napoleon’s children or later wives, appear then vanish from the narrative without a second mention.
This creates a deeper problem with the film. The director provides some stunning battle scenes throughout his two-and-a-half-hour runtime. But because the audience never has a clear idea of the personal or political stakes involved for Napoleon, they have no impact beyond spectacle. By the time Rupert Everett shows up as the Duke of Wellington, snarling and scoffing over the Battle of Waterloo, the audience has seen Napoleon venerated, exiled, and back again—but has no idea why, or how the people of France felt about it all.
Director Scott, perhaps in a nod to his late friend, emulates some key Stanley Kubrick innovations throughout Napoleon. The lush costumes and natural lighting evoke Barry Lyndon, while the Napoleon-Joséphine relationship recalls the complicated matrimonial dynamics of Eyes Wide Shut. Unfortunately, Scott also borrows one of Kubrick’s worst habits: denying the audience real insight into his characters. Kubrick’s The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey—these movies regard their characters from the outside, almost as objects. Scott doesn’t quite stoop to that level of sterility in Napoleon, but he comes close. As a result, the audience only sees Napoleon, et. al. They don’t see inside them.
We suspect that Ridley Scott, a man known for endless extended cuts of his movies, has a longer, more insightful version of Napoleon stashed under his bed somewhere. No doubt Sony and Apple will one day afford him the opportunity to release his extended version. Here’s hoping that like the director’s much-maligned theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven, the longer version reveals Napoleon as a masterpiece victimized by overzealous scissors.
In its current form, Napoleon has plenty of lush visuals, entertaining performances, and epic action to keep an audience amused, but not enough to captivate thought or emotion. Maybe Stanley Kubrick sensed this problem with condensing Napoleon’s life and career into a single film, hence his never actually making the movie. Ridley Scott has consistently borrowed from Kubrick throughout his directing career to clothe his movies. This time, he may have borrowed the wrong general's hat.
RATING: 7/10 SPECS
Napoleon opens in theatres November 22. We’ve got the latest on movies in theaters now.