A chyron that appears at the end of “Napoleon” — after two and a half hours of turgid, grime-encrusted spectacle — informs that France’s self-anointed emperor oversaw 61 battles, listing the six that director Ridley Scott opted to stage for our benefit … or for his own glory. The director’s motives are unclear, much like those of Napoleon Bonaparte, as played by Joaquin Phoenix, who gives a mumbly and oddly anti-charismatic performance as the figure — short, slender and something of an outsider, owing to his Corsican birth — who came to rule France after the revolution.
Here, from the master of the modern epic, comes an undeniably impressive technical achievement: a bombastic old-school “great man” movie of the sort that dominated Hollywood in the late ’50s and early ’60s. But times are not the same, and though Scott is wise to which way the wind blows (he demonstrated as much in his medieval-reckoning movie “The Last Duel”), he’s less sure about how best to position such a biopic for a moment fed up with power-hungry patriarchs. It’s the opposite of recent films like “Chevalier” and “Jeanne du Barry,” which plumb the footnotes of history to find overlooked heroes. Those stories expand audiences’ horizons, whereas “Napoleon” replays what we already know.
Both Scott and Phoenix embrace a touch of camp, portraying the enigma that was Napoleon as a petulant brat-cum-military genius: someone who knew how to get his way on the battlefield, but resorted to food fights at home. As written by David Scarpa, “Napoleon” tilts much of the attention away from its title character and toward the man’s wife, Josephine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby).
Theirs is a great passion, to the extent that Napoleon abandons his mission in Egypt to sail home and confront Josephine when he learns of liaisons she’s been entertaining in his absence. But every time she appears on-screen, it distracts from the film’s main selling point: expansive, cast-of-hundreds combat scenes that prove both Napoleon’s keen military strategy and Scott’s gift for staging such clashes.
From the modern Mogadishu firefight in “Black Hawk Down” to the 12th-century siege of Jerusalem in “Kingdom of Heaven,” Scott has ample experience with plunging audiences into intense immersive warfare. Here, he takes a step back, embracing the widescreen format and filming as Abel Gance (in the three-screen finale of his 1927 silent “Napoleon”) and Sergei Bondarchuk (for his Soviet-era “War and Peace” epic) did: letting an entire battlefield fill the frame, surveyed from on high by Napoleon himself, who stands stoically, communicating his orders with as little as a head nod at times.
Scott tracks Napoleon’s career from his days as a promising young officer who witnessed the guillotining of Marie Antoinette (one of Scarpa’s many poetic licenses) to his exile on the island of St. Helena. Though Josephine died seven years before him, she gets the last word in this telling — not that anyone would mistake this for being her movie. Dense without feeling rushed, then over without ever having really sprung to life, “Napoleon” seems determined to cover a great deal of ground within its not-insignificant running time.
The film opens with a brilliant military victory at Toulon, where the 24-year-old major captures the city’s artillery and turns it against the Spanish and British ships occupying the port. In one shot, Napoleon is charging the city walls when a cannonball strikes his horse’s chest, sending the animal and its rider somersaulting backward. Pinned beneath the beast, the bloody young officer heaves himself to his feet and carries on with the siege. It’s not often that a filmmaker delivers an image of war that audiences haven’t seen before, and this early example sets a high bar.
Whenever the director and his protagonist find themselves on the battlefield, “Napoleon” reminds what a pantheon-level talent Scott is. He orchestrates staggeringly complex scenes in such a way that we can intuit the broad strategy, even as he scars us with horrifying details, like a drummer vaporized by a cannon blast or a massive army sunk to the bottom of a frozen lake at the Battle of Austerlitz. Still, the movie may well send audiences back to their history books for an explanation of something so fundamental as why the French dictator is warmongering at all.
Phoenix is largely accountable for this confusion, as he bends the iconic character to his own brand: that of the insecure, antisocial man-child — which is an unorthodox take on Napoleon, to say the least. Apart from the hat, his silhouette isn’t that of Napoleon. The actor’s soft-spoken approach spares him the indignity of performing with a hammy foreign accent (Scott isn’t falling into that trap again after “House of Gucci”), and yet, Napoleon did speak differently from his peers in the French court, hailing as he did from the island of Corsica — a key detail all but lost in this telling. The movie requires Phoenix to play the character across more than three decades, but he only looks the part toward the end. Early on, he appears more grizzled than commanding officer Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim); later, the passage of time merely makes him look stockier and more unshaved.
While Scott includes moments that recast the popular image of Napoleon — as when he’s shown looking terrified, scrambling down the stairs and into the arms of his troops during the coup d’état that elevated him to First Consul of France — his approach doesn’t feel revisionist so much as incomplete. That’s surprising, since the script takes on far more than audiences have asked for as it is, to the extent that “Napoleon” ultimately suffers from the same problem as its subject: The film’s ambitions are greater than the people demand, as Scott bites off more than he can manage.
If the goal was to reevaluate Napoleon’s career in the context of whatever power Josephine held over him, then surely the movie could have done with fewer battle scenes and a sharper depiction of the who’s-controlling-whom dynamic between them. In the end, “Napoleon” seems less enamored with its subject than any previous telling of his exploits, referencing the 3 million lives lost under his campaigns. Scott may be skeptical of the man, but he can’t resist the desire to re-create some of history’s most notorious conflicts, and so psychology is sacrificed for the sake of spectacle.