Ridley Scott’s Napoleon marches into cinematic battle with the bluster and confidence that comes with a reported $200-million budget and Sir Ridley’s decades-deep track record of well-mounted action epics.
All that money and prestige is visible onscreen in the film’s far-flung locations, hundreds of extras, delectable period costumes and decor, and, as advertised, several massively-scaled scenes of battle, on land and sea, circa 1789 to 1815.
Legions of infantry and cavalry clash on various rolling hills of Europe, shot in icy, desaturated blues and grays by Dariusz Wolski, Scott’s cinematographer on his last nine films (though not his next one, Gladiator 2, being lensed by Gladiator d.p. John Mathieson).
Against vast fields of green or snow-covered grasses, and CGI-enhanced masses of combatants, soldiers’ coats flash a red that’s many shades brighter than the blood that flows and bursts violently across the screen.
The filmmakers spare no visual detail in depicting the bodily devastation of hand-to-hand armed combat — death by bayonet, point-blank gunfire, horse hooves, or long-range artillery.
Death here is bloody, disgusting, and woefully unnecessary, but it’s also the main currency of war, and this movie revels in the loud, explosive spectacle of war far more enthusiastically than it casts its feebly critical eye at the men who clamor for it.
Above all else, the film renders tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte, portrayed by Oscar-winner Joaquin Phoenix as a shrewd but coarse, fearless, petulant, glowering egomaniac who rises to imperial power fighting and winning wars. He is not introspective, nor philosophical about the wages of war, and neither is Scott’s film.
The movie evinces a vague awareness of Napoleon’s reputation as a despot utterly insensitive to the tremendous expenses of life and lucre that fuel his conquests, but the dominating theme is the general’s tactical brilliance.
He’s a winner, baby, and everyone who stands against him, or dares speak against him — from the one-note villainous British, to the condescending royal heads across the continent — will bow to him.
Scripted by David Scarpa (Scott’s All the Money in the World), Napoleon tediously repeats a pattern of stuffed-shirt enemies defying or underestimating him until he whips them on the battlefield.
That aura of accomplishment appears to be what most animates Scott’s interest, as well as his clear admiration for the military commander as a fellow director of big-budget, cinematic warfare.
As to what Napoleon, or the world, might gain from his deadly campaigns, the film offers little to grasp emotionally as he slogs from one battlefield to the next. He gains power, glory, riches, but cares about nothing, except Josephine (Vanessa Kirby).
A fiery match for his massive ego, Josephine is pictured as the muse to Napoleon’s symphonies of violence and destruction. Their love letters provide structure and exposition advancing the plot, but their romance — a years-long dance between two selfish, unpleasant privileged pricks — fails to excite.
In a year awash with seductive onscreen duos (hello, All of Us Strangers), Napoleon and Josephine’s first flirty date, where she offers herself to him over afternoon cordials, is the un-sexiest seduction of the season.
Reportedly, Scott has a longer cut of the movie that adds dimension to the depiction of their relationship. Certainly, their love story has its complexities in this cut, but it feels half-hearted compared to the robust action, which, in itself, also doesn’t spark much emotion beyond respect for the absolute scale of the real-life events, as well as the production.
The film overflows with an unmitigated esteem for Napoleon’s ability to get things done. He’s not a politician, he boasts.
But then, just like a politician, the film ends with a title card grimly tallying up the thousands upon thousands of lives lost in the battles Napoleon fought, as if it had spent any of its considerable time concerned with the lives of those who died so that this commander might one day be celebrated.
Napoleon (★★☆☆☆) is rated R and playing in theaters nationwide. Visit www.fandango.com.
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