It’s 1812 in the winter hell of Russia. Thousands of French troops (and their allies) are making an agonizing retreat toward Poland, the victims of weather more than their opposing forces. (Though the Tsar’s army has certainly done its damage.) The leader of these beleaguered men, Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix), walks among them. “We’re winning!” he says. Lol.

Ridley Scott’s Napoleon (in theaters November 22) is a study of such stubbornness, perhaps particularly of the male variety. The film, written by David Scarpa, takes one of the most studied figures in history and turns him into an avatar of a ruinous human impulse: the unyielding pursuit of more renown, more glory, more power. Megalomaniacs like Napoleon have emerged throughout our species’s timeline, laying waste to so much around them and, eventually, to themselves. Perhaps Scott and Scarpa see some pertinence there, some relevance to our own era. Is, say, Donald Trump a Napoleonic figure, short fingers swapped in for a general diminutiveness? Is he any number of the other strong men who have recently risen to power over the last decade or so? Maybe.

Though the jokes about Napoleon’s height are sparing, there is plenty of other comedy in the film. Napoleon’s version of this infamous and strangely revered emperor is a ridiculous, petulant figure—not quite to the “terribly vexed” extremes of Phoenix’s character in Scott’s Gladiator, but certainly in the same family. Phoenix has always been good at depicting this kind of pathetic tyranny, deftly (and swiftly) shifting from bratty, toothless insouciance to genuine menace. The actor seems to get both the joke and the seriousness of the film, though I wish Scott were better at communicating that tone to the audience.

One can only vaguely infer the ultimate intent of Napoleon. It’s part bracing, if repetitive, war film. It is also a wry survey of dangerous male ego. (Scott did it better in 2021’s The Last Duel.) And then there is its sideways love story, between Napoleon and his one-time wife, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). In the early, promising portion of that narrative, the film seems to be heading into the territory of Phantom Thread, a look at a vainglorious albeit talented man nearly undone by a romantic equal. Kirby, as she is so often, is a slinky and intelligent delight, fixing steely gazes flecked with genuine hurt at this bizarre little man she maybe comes to love. Or she’s only in love with his power. Or they’re the same thing. 

Napoleon is a demanding and abusive husband, one who expects total devotion from his wife. But he also keeps crawling back, craving more of whatever mysterious power Josephine herself possesses. Again, though, one has to strain to really extract any theme out of all this push and pull. Scott keeps the film awfully stiff; we don’t even get a big final scene before Josephine’s death from diphtheria. “Yeah, yeah, here’s that stuff,” Scott seems to say, before yet again turning to another enormous art-of-war battle scene.

Those, of course, are a forte of the director’s, as he has shown from Gladiator to his jumbled but interesting Kingdom of Heaven and his pleasingly moody take on Robin Hood. Here, Scott trades arrows for cannon balls, whizzing and booming across fields of the Continent (and, in one grimly amusing scene of wanton destruction, into the Great Pyramids of Giza). Horses and men alike are felled in grizzly fashion. (The animal wrangling and safekeeping budget on this production must have been massive.) The Austerlitz sequence is especially effective, a horror of snowy combat that sees Napoleon’s enemies fleeing, in terrible futility, across a frozen lake. If these are what gets Scott’s blood up, then so be it. Maybe he can do the American Revolution next.


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