Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” is well-cast, well-made, and without a thought-provoking theory of its subject’s world-changing appeal.
After the violent throes of revolution, in a bankrupt French Republic on the brink of collapse, a man captured the hearts of his people and rose to rule. This is the story of Napoleon Bonaparte, the subject of director Ridley Scott’s new movie, Napoleon, in theaters for Thanksgiving.
Napoleon was one of the most fascinating people in history. Unfortunately, for all its big-budget set pieces and stars, Scott’s film is underdeveloped and confused—in its basic historical storytelling, but, more importantly, in what it has to say about its subject and the meaning of his life.
Napoleon begins with the bloody fall of the French monarchy and, with it, the head of its famous queen Marie Antoinette. From there, we meet Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix), a lowborn but ambitious officer who seizes his chance to rise to power in the chaotic aftermath of the revolution. The movie follows the major beats of his life point by point, from his first miliary success at Toulon to his final exile on the island of Saint Helena.
Scott pushes through these phases in confusing succession. From Toulon, which is in France, Napoleon is suddenly in Egypt. If you’re a student of 18th- and 19th-century Europe and its constant power struggles, you know Napoleon campaigned through Egypt to weaken France’s rival Great Britain by nipping at their Middle Eastern holdings. But if you don’t already know this context, you simply see Napoleon with the Great Sphinx at Gaza—and likely wonder what he’s doing there and why.
Also strangely handled is Napoleon’s conflicted love affair with Josephine, the woman he made Empress of the French, then later abandoned. Their story is the stuff of legend, one of history’s great …