Add this to a list of long movies this year. Following in the wake of Killers of the Flower Moon at 3 hours, 26 minutes, and Oppenheimer at an even 3 hours, this 2 hour, 38-minute romp through the battlefields of early nineteenth-century Europe doesn’t even make your butt sore.
If you’ve seen 2000’s Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott, you know what to expect with Napoleon. Gladiatorwas also directed by Scott and also featured Joaquin Phoenix, though not in the lead role. Locations, costuming, and immersive cinematic violence are his strengths. The role of Commodus, which Phoenix played with creepy intensity in Gladiator is more or less reprised here in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte, history’s “short guy,” who set out to conquer the world. In both cases, he looks convincing in a Roman-style laurel leaf crown.
Don’t look for much about his stature. Only a couple of times was he seen standing on a box or needing assistance to mount a horse. As a side note, the actor is two inches taller than the subject at 5 foot 8 inches. And the “hand in the vest” thing is entirely absent.
The film begins with Marie Antoinette’s trip to the guillotine in 1793 France. Young General Bonaparte returns from the field and begins a string of military victories that eventually claim the lives of three million soldiers. From an initial triumph at Toulon to his eventual undoing at Waterloo, the parade of battles is on display in the film in graphic detail, though not with a total emphasis on gore. War is ugly, cold, hot, and lengthy. From Egypt to Moscow, the poor souls under Bonaparte’s command suffered from exposure to the elements, disease, and starvation while lofting him to Emperor of France. He would not settle for simply being king.
Royalty throughout Europe is displayed during Napoleon’s ascension and eventual quest for an heir to the throne. His volatile relationship with Josephine suffers from the conflict between two equally dynamic and acerbic personalities. Josephine is well-played by Vanessa Kirby.
Phoenix pulls off the portrayal of a man who may have been a highly functioning autistic savant. (It wouldn’t be surprising if Phoenix is as well.) But his ingenious military tactics were eventually no match for equally brilliant, and adaptable, generals like Britain’s Wellington. Some artistic liberty is taken in the scene between the two leaders, which is fictitious.
Depictions of infantry and cavalry charges, a military staple until technology changed warfare in World War I, are gut-wrenching to watch. The term “cannon fodder” is gruesomely illustrated. You’ll do yourself a favor if you read (or watch) “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens, or “Les Misérables” by Hugo to get a feel for the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror. At least look up some of the historical characters presented in the film, like Alexander, Talleyrand, Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and Von Blucher. Significant events and dates are labeled with subtitles, but people are not always identified.
Napoleon was never boring, but left me feeling that perhaps a four-hour version would be appropriate (ninety minutes of additional footage in a Director’s Cut is promised.) And as engaging, visually stunning, and well-acted as it is, I didn’t leave saying “Wow!” More like, “Yeah, that was good.” I might recommend watching at home if you have a really large, high-quality system, otherwise, viewing in a theater is recommended.
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