Napoleon (2023)

Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby are adrift in a meandering narrative that leaves us as uninformed as we began

Still of Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby in ‘Napolean’ (2023)

Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby in ‘Napolean’ (2023)

Synopsis

As the famous writer’s advice goes, begin “in medias res.” Begin in the middle. Napolean, to its detriment, begins in the midst of the French Revolution, as the camera follows Marie Antoinette on her last march to the guillotine. And off with her head. In the crowd lurks an ambitious gunnery officer named Napolean Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix).

In back rooms, Lucien Bonaparte is lobbying fellow Jacobians to put brother Napolean in charge of liberating the French port of Toulon from the occupying British. Napolean’s daring night attack, and sinking of British ships, wins him notoriety and a promotion to brigadier general.

After that, he leads the successful and brutal suppression of royalist insurgents. And then we spy on his wooing and marriage to Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), a disgraced aristocrat. And then his campaign in Egypt. His return to France. His participation in a coup that lands him the title of First Consul in a ruling triumvirate. Followed by Napolean’s ham-fisted handling of state matters. And then he’s crowned Emperor … well, he crowns himself. But then, you knew that.

And so on and so forth. This brings us not quite halfway through this wannabe epic. But something’s missing.

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In fact, a lot is missing. Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa try to tell this story on an epic scale, and this is the very thing that hamstrings Napolean. To cover the scope of Napolean’s rise and fall, they parade forth a host of French politicians and aristocrats and foreign dignitaries, each introduced for their cameo-size roles with cue cards in barely legible script. You could genuinely appreciate the cascade of events only if you were already intimate with French history and, if you were, you would no doubt find this telling of it lacking and misleading.

Napolean wants to be half biopic, half love story. The biopic is merely a string of set pieces that tell us nothing of how he became such a brilliant strategist or such a boorish, ambition-driven dictator. And the love story, told largely through Napolean and Josephine’s letters (mostly his), is sometimes toxic and never compelling to experience. Do we believe Napolean was truly smitten to the end, or was that just how he wanted to be remembered through his letters?

Well, there are the battle scenes. Ridley Scott does know how to film these, elucidating the strategies that made Napolean successful amid the brutality and chaos. But their connection to actual history and the rest of the story is tenuous, seemingly staged to give the adventure-loving among us just enough to look forward to as we slog through this meandering plot.

Joaquin Phoenix can usually elevate a so-so role, but this one does not seem to inspire him. Perhaps he was directed to tamp down his energy. His Napolean is as colorless and drab as the incessantly dark skies and muted colors of the world cast around him.

Only Vanessa Kirby wrings a bit more empathy out of her plight. We don’t know whether she is crying because Josephine is forlorn or because she’s trapped in such a bloodless role.

Instead of in medias res, I would have traded Antoinette’s beheading for a few scenes of young Napolean. Something, anything, to give us some insight into this tortured and torturing legend.

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