Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, with Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, runs for two hours and thirty-eight minutes. That’s almost as long as Napoleon’s coronation, at Notre-Dame de Paris, in 1804. The ceremony began at midday and lasted at least three hours. The congregation snacked on chocolate, sausages, and bread: the popcorn of the revolutionary age.
In “Napoleon,” we attend the coronation, but only for a while. Scott is in a hurry to move on to the next event. As in any account of Napoleon’s life, there is an underlying comedy in the very attempt to squash an unruly mob of incidents into a tight dramatic space. “Would you like to see the bedroom?” Napoleon says to his second wife, Marie-Louise (Anna Mawn), and bang: a baby, brought in swaddling clothes for him to dandle. That was quick. At the destructive end of existence, Scott is no less economical. There may be battle scenes to die for—Toulon, Austerlitz, Borodino, and Waterloo, plus a dusty glimpse of combat beside the Pyramids—but entire campaigns, elsewhere, are elided or brushed off in a line of dialogue. “I have already conquered Italy, which surrendered without conflict,” Napoleon declares. Tell that to the folk of Binasco, in Lombardy, who rose up against the French, in 1796, and were punished for their temerity.
“Terror” is the first word that is clearly enunciated in the movie. It issues, needless to say, from the mad mouth of Robespierre (Sam Troughton), who expounds upon the rationale of violence and winds up shooting himself in the face. We see a finger probing the wound; in a similar vein, we see Napoleon plucking a cannonball from the lacerated breast of his dead horse. This film is intimate with gore. At the start, we are granted so prime a position, bladeside at the guillotine, for the execution of Marie Antoinette (Catherine Walker) that we can spot the scraps of lettuce in her hair; she has been pelted with vegetables by the crowd. Napoleon is there—watchful, unmoved, taking the temperature of collective rage. Then, during the storming of an enemy fort in Toulon, by night, there’s an extraordinary closeup of his features, striped with blood; he puts his hands over his ears to muffle the boom of the cannons. Is he at home in the mayhem, ecstatically calm, or horrified at all that he has unleashed?
What Phoenix summons, in other words, is the most inward of Napoleons. Even when he’s in company, or surveying the deployment of his troops, or blustering with outrage, you feel that he’s prowling the battlements of his own brain. It could be argued, of course, that brooding goes with the territory. Think of Charles Boyer’s Napoleon, in “Conquest” (1937), on a snowbound balcony, saying “I love you,” sotto voce, to Marie Walewska, his Polish paramour, without even looking in her direction—quite a feat, considering that she’s played by Greta Garbo. (Poor Walewska doesn’t even rate a mention in the new film.) But Boyer gave a late-Romantic reading of Napoleon, whereas Phoenix, evading doominess and charm alike, suggests a man who is naggingly conscious of fulfilling a role and already arranging his place in history. “Do I resemble my portrait?” he asks Marie-Louise. Entering a church, in a deserted Moscow, he takes his seat, enthroned at the high altar, as if striking a pose for a painter. If he notices the pigeon droppings all around, he ignores them.
Such a pitch of self-consciousness goes far deeper than vanity. It’s as if Napoleon were forever trying out what manner of person he should and could potentially be. Hence the ardor of his acolytes, confronted with a new model of behavior, who crown him with plaudits such as “our Caesar.” Nor is he alone in his ambition. His first wife, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), observes it in him, shares it, and toys with the power that it bestows. “I want you to say I am the most important thing in the world,” he tells her, commandingly, yet she—a widow, not a warrior—is somehow his superior in worldliness. The question that she puts to her maid, after her first exchange with him, could hardly be more Napoleonic: “Do I look like I’m in love?” Kirby feasts on the delicious ennui of her character; even in the throes of their coupling, she seems infinitely bored, as if wondering what she’s going to have for lunch. Much later, when Napoleon calls her a pig and a beast, she returns the fusillade. “You are just a brute who is nothing without me,” she says. At the dissolution of their marriage, she stifles a laugh, and then weeps.
So, is “Napoleon” dynamite? Not if you’re a historian. Napoleonic scholars, of whom there are touchy battalions, will be up in arms from the outset, noting that Marie Antoinette’s hair was shorn before her decapitation, and that Napoleon, rather than witnessing her death, was in the South of France. Do not make the mistake, though, of assuming either that Scott is blind to such discrepancies or that he cares a jot. No film that presents Rupert Everett as the Duke of Wellington, as this one does, could be accused of a craving for authenticity. Scott’s business is to move his men and women around the board, as it were, and to play a bracing game with the facts. Few directors can rival the swagger with which he cuts from the grand overview to the telling, tiny detail: from the squares formed by British infantry at Waterloo, for instance, to the neat hole made by a musket ball in the corner of Napoleon’s hat.
If the movie falters, it’s because, as a bio-pic, it cannot do otherwise. Even the most expert of storytellers is defeated by the essential plotlessness of the form: one damn thing after another. For all its galvanizing set pieces, “Napoleon” boasts neither the shape nor the dash of “The Duellists” (1977)—Scott’s début feature, a tale of revenge set in the Napoleonic era—and little of the momentum that drove “Gladiator” (2000), his previous collaboration with Phoenix. The imaginative zeal of that film was liberated by its fictional hero, Maximus, and by his feud with the imperial villain, Commodus, whereas Phoenix’s Napoleon must do double duty. He is Maximus and Commodus, rolled into one, and it’s a treacherous theme for an epic: a man doing battle with himself.