Napoleon Bonaparte was not short, as many people think he was today. He was actually about average height for his time—if not taller. The perception that he was short comes from a sustained British propaganda campaign, which portrayed the emperor as a raving, childish brat, screaming about the British or wearing drastically ill-fitting bicorne hats. Watching the movie “Napoleon,” it genuinely seems that it was directed by those 19th-century propagandists and not by the acclaimed Ridley Scott.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon is, for lack of a better word, pathetic. Now, this isn’t to say that the real Napoleon was any sort of godlike genius and any portrayal that portrays him negatively is made out of spite. Napoleon was a tyrant, a tyrant who made many fatal mistakes. But the film’s portrayal seems to blow these shortcomings way out of proportion. It’s difficult to understand why the French would welcome Napoleon as their emperor when all the audience sees is him failing upwards for two and a half hours.
Firstly, Napoleon seems to bumble his way throughout what history recognizes as his major successes and accomplishments. If you’ve studied computer science, like me, you’ll understand what this feels like. In his first battle sequence he grabs a sword and charges alongside his troops—and then is revealed to be absolutely dogshit at swordfighting, huffing and sweating as his men rush to save him from vastly more capable opponents. And it’s true that Napoleon was assaulted and turned out of the room when he launched his coup of the French government—but the film has him sprinting away in sheer and cartoonlike panic, cascading down a flight of stairs Peter Griffin-style.
Even the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon’s greatest victory, fails to impress. Most of the screentime is spent on an incident at the end of the battle, where French troops shot the ice-filled lakes that some Russian troops were retreating across. While it looks cool, it completely sidelines all the strategic planning and maneuvers that Napoleon used to get his enemies to retreat in the first place. Basically any general, given a bunch of cannons and enemies retreating across thin ice, would have done the same thing. It’s what came before that incident that cemented Napoleon’s reputation for brilliance—which Scott completley ignores in favor of cheap eye-candy.
Where Scott’s portrayal of Napoleon gets truly ridiculous, though, is in the smaller moments. He made a central part of the film focus on Napoleon’s romance with his wife Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), though to call it a “romance” would be extremely, extremely generous. It is a horrendous, toxic, codependent farce and it’s portrayed in a positive light.
Napoleon gets the worst out of it, as the film makes him out to be some sort of sex-crazed lunatic. In one egregious scene the Emperor of the French strips naked, gets down on all floors and crawls under his and Josephine’s dining table, whimpering like a dog, before reaching Josephine and dragging her underneath the table. Other sex scenes are similarily awful, involving 10-15 seconds of slapping noises followed by Napoleon demanding to know if Josephine has become pregnant.
We never get to truly understand the couple’s “relationship”; we only ever see its worst aspects. We see Napoleon slapping Josephine around, throwing food at her or whining about her infertility, but that’s about it. Josephine is clearly aware of Napoleon’s obsession over her, and is clearly aware that she has the power to control it, but never does. Kirby’s acting comes across as strangely emotionless, giving us little hints into Josephine’s behavior and why she puts up with what is obviously a highly unstable individual. Was it because of power? Fame? Did she actually have feelings for Napoleon? For a film so heavily dependent on its romance subplot, you’d expect it to make these questions clear, but it barely tries and all we’re left with is a portrait of disturbing abuse that never gets condemmed.
Speaking of acting, Phoenix’s performance seems oddly lifeless as well. It may well have been that Scott was trying to portray Napoleon as a stereotypical autistic savant (he covers his ears whenever his own cannons go off), which raises a lot of uncomfortable implications. Phoenix seems to have been cast solely to act deranged; screaming unintentionally hilarious lines such as “This lamb chop is my DESTINY!” and “YOU THINK YOU’RE SO GREAT BECAUSE YOU HAVE BOATS!”
There’s nothing wrong with portraying derangement among the powerful; in fact, there’s a powerful societal fascination with it. The problem is this, however, is that most movies try to give answers, to try and understand why their antagonists and antiheroes behave in the strange ways that they do. Napoleon’s history, however, remains a strange blank. All we’re given is that he came from Corsica, which causes other royals to refer to him as a “ruffian” for reasons unclear to the audience. We never see any moments of his childhood or upbringing that would answer the many questions the audience begins to wonder about him. His Jekyll-and-Hyde complex in the heat of battle, his lust for wild sex and power, his obsession with securing his legacy through the birth of an heir and his singular, all-consumming devotion to his wife are never explained. He simply materializes into Revolutionary Paris, with all of his bizarre traits pre-programmed in like some NPC.
It’s clear that Scott has decided to make history take a backseat to his characterization of Napoleon (though he never bothers to explain it). And the movie suffers for it. It focuses so much on Napoleon, the man (or at least Scott and Phoenix’s interpretation of him) that it ignores any sense of a plotline. It reads like a list of historical dates without any connection between them. One minute someone suggests Napoleon should declare himself emperor, the next he’s being crowned with no setup or justification to his people. One minute Napoleon and the Tzar have declared themselves brothers, the next Napoleon has declared war on him with little explanation as to why. Other important events like the Battle of Trafalgar, or Napoleon’s legal reforms, or the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, are skipped altogether. You never get enough context to understand what is happening, other than Phoenix’s ranting and raving, which not even the movie intends to be a reliable source. Those who know nothing about history will be completely lost. Those who know a lot about history will be completely enraged.
This movie is not worth 2 hours and 38 minutes of your time. If you do still want to watch it, watch it for the spectacle of massive battle scenes, for people dressed up in elaborate constumes and for the ludicrous fiction of Napoleon blowing up the pyramids of Egypt. And don’t be prepared to take Napoleon seriously at all, because the film itself never does. Before this movie came out, people were worried that it would glorify the fanatical emperor to a ridiculous degree. Now, however, it’s clear that it does just the opposite.