Ridley Scott steps into the biopic fiction arena with Napoleon. Despite the panoramic spectacle of the film, the script by David Scarpa (All the Money in the World) lacks enough substance to make the movie much more than an average outing.
Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lowly Corsican captain in the French army. But his brilliant mind for strategy leads to the breaking of a British blockade, which instantly elevates him to general. From there, he seems set to travel upward through the ranks. While at a courtier's party he sees Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) and is immediately infatuated. He courts her and eventually marries her. But as he rises all the way to Emperor of France, his fortunes seem indelibly tied to Josephine. As they drift apart, his downward spiral from commanding the world's attention to remote exile falls with it.
Scott is a brilliant director of scenes and scenery in nearly every genre, and the case is no different here. Unfortunately, while the film is visually stunning, the story lacks the substance needed to get the audience's sympathy. Instead of being a continuous story of the politician-general's life, what viewers are treated to is more of an extended montage. While the focus is advertised to be on the relationship between Napoleon and Josephine, it is frequently reduced to obsession, control, and sex. The story moves through time in a linear fashion, but how it plays out comes across as disjointed sometimes. Phoenix gives an adequate performance but isn't as engaging as is typical with his acting. He consistently throws himself entirely into his interpretation of the role, so the fault could be in the script. Still, theatergoers have come to expect more from this fine actor. On the other hand, Kirby provides the landmark performance of the film. As a result, the film could have profited had there been more true focus on the two of them together.
Scott's close work with the cinematography crew yields the results that have made him such a powerhouse in the industry for roughly fifty years. From long shots of landscapes to intimate close-ups, each frame is nearly perfectly designed and executed. Battle scenes are frantic, but in this instance, they should be because of the sheer magnitude of the actual events. It works well to show how Napoleon could lose 70,000 soldiers in a single day in the Battle of Borodino.
Napoleon is an enjoyable enough film, especially if the viewer isn't intimately familiar with the specifics of the Napoleonic era. It gives a decent introductory course into his rule and relationship with Josephine, but like his Russian foray, it fails to win the campaign.