Napoleon is director Ridley Scott’s newest film, retelling the life and times of French leader Napoleon Bonaparte. That sentence is not much more than the set-up afforded by the film — a title card roughly setting the stage — before the viewer is flung into the world of late-1700s European politics.
Watching the film, however, is akin to being read a history book by a boring professor. There’s no passion in the storytelling. Napoleon focuses largely on the who, what, when, where, and how, with no inkling of interest in the why. What the movie provides is a dry tome portrayed by capable actors. What Napoleon does not provide is a reason for an audience in the year 2023 to care — even a little bit.
Joaquin Phoenix, undoubtedly a capable actor, portrays Bonaparte with a cold, passionless sheen. He seems to be sleeping through his performance, possibly on purpose. The historical context of the French emperor notwithstanding, it’s hard to connect with Phoenix’s Napoleon. As is it with Vanessa Kirby’s Empress Joséphine, Napoleon’s wife. Indeed, things are happening in these characters’ lives that would be impactful, but the events are retold in such a clinical, dry manner they never hit home with an audience craving feeling and emotion.
The director has promised, nay threatened, that a four-and-a-half-hour cut of Napoleon exists — one that dives deeper into the life of Kirby’s Joséphine. However, unless that cut unlocks a treasure trove of emotion and complexity, it’s hard to imagine a longer film doing anything to alleviate the clinical boredom brought on by Scott’s Napoleon.
For history buffs, there may be something here worth watching, but anyone seeking character or a coherent narrative best search elsewhere. Napoleon has all the charm and intrigue of a dusty high school history book.