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Movie Review - Napoleon

In preparation to watch Ridley Scott’s new film, Napoleon, I chose to watch the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. This was perhaps the worst thing I could have done…and the best. I’ll explain that in a bit, but first, let me try and provide a synopsis:

From Corsican captain to Emperor of much of Europe, the life of Napoleon Bonaparte is captured in the unflinching eye or Ridley Scott. A man of both boundless ambition and deep insecurities, both his military and political career are interwoven with his tempestuous and legendary romance with the French aristocrat Josephine. Witness the rise and fall of one of the most powerful forces in European history.

Wow…okay, it’s really hard to write those blurbs for biopics!

While no one can deny that Ridley Scott has a nearly peerless mastery of cinema and a long list of works that confirm that: Alien, Blade Runner, Legend, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, his later works have been more…inconsistent. And if you’ve seen Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, you know I’m actually being kinda generous here.

Still, I brought up Kingdom of Heaven for a reason. That’s a film that while I do recall liking the theatrical cut, it was met with mixed to negative reception from audiences and reviewers at the time. In short order a longer director’s cut of the film was released and, for those that saw it, not only was it very nearly a completely different film, it was also a much better one with far more positive reviews.

I’m really hoping the same thing happens for Napoleon.

It certainly seems to be heading that way, with the announcement that there is an upcoming director’s cut weighing in at 4 hours and 10 minutes, adding another hour and a half to the 2-hour thirty-plus minutes of the theatrical release. The thing is, given that this film was a co-production with Apple Films, this longer cut will be heading to their Apple TV+ streaming platform. Let me address the prospect of the longer cut first, since that’s very much a positive…then I’ll mount my soapbox as to why it going to streaming is such a bad idea.

As the film stands now, I think the biggest…and most universal from the reviews that I’ve read or watched…is that the film lacks a narrative structure. This is very true. Scott’s film seems more like a “Greatest Hits” collection, a series of vignettes, as opposed to an actual film. We’re provided with some excellent set pieces, especially those of the battles of the Napoleonic Wars where Scott truly shines, but we’re not really given any context to these events that might constitute a narrative throughline. Yes, events do flow in order…there are no confusing flashbacks or any such mixing of dates or events…but it is jarring to see in one scene Napoleon is making peace with the Russian Tsar Nicholas I then in the very next scene he’s planning to go to war with that very same Russia. We’re only given a line or two of narration to contextualize this turn of events…but that’s really not satisfying in a narrative sense. That’s the most extreme case, but I assure you, much of the film functions like this, as if we’re poking our head into the timestream from time to time, given samples of a life than the story of one. That criticism, it’s my hope that the additional hour and a half or so of material will flesh out the film and perhaps make it an actual story. Instead, in its current state it feels more like an experiment in the editing room than an actual finished product.

So why does the idea of releasing it on streaming suck? I mean, aside from the fact that I’m a physical media fanboy and I loathe Apple with a passion? Well, put simply, Apple is been very spotty with what they release to physical media. Take the World War II Tom Hanks naval drama Greyhound. It premiered on Apple’s service and it’s a Tom Hanks film, so I’m sure there’s a broader appeal than just the hipsters that purchase/subscribe to anything Apple tells them to…yet it’s yet to appear on physical media (aside from bootlegs, of course). Yes, Apple just recently released their series For All Mankind to disc, but there seems to very much be a pick-and-choose to their releases…and why not? If you want to bait people to subscribe to your service, it would almost be poor business sense to release any of your ‘content’ to physical media. So, will a wider audience get to see this extended cut…as they did with Kingdom of Heaven and as such be able to re-evaluate the film? That’s anyone’s guess.

All of that out of the way, let’s talk about the film’s cast. Joaquin Phoenix in the title role is too perfect a casting. Much like Cillian Murphy’s recent turn as J. Robert Oppenheimer, it’s hard to see the actor because they slip into the role so easily, both in terms of appearance and behavior. Vannessa Kirby as Josephine is equally captivating and the way she and Phoenix play off of one another, painting less a peerless romance and more a slightly toxic codependent relationship, brings life to the film in the quieter moments when musket balls and cannon fire are absent. The push-and-pull between these two would’ve seemed annoying in the hands of lesser actors, but the pair do an excellent job of showing that these are two people who are not above playing on one another insecurities to get what they want, both out of life and out of each other. The remainder of the cast all do fine jobs, but the fractured nature of the film makes it very hard to get attached to any of them…as they be in one part of Napoleon’s life, then utterly disappear for the rest of the film, never to be seen again. The best compliment, given these circumstances, is that no one breaks the atmosphere of the film.

Obligatory Score Paragraph: it’s fine. It seems a little heavy-handed or overbearing at times but, just as the film itself is fractured, if you divorce the music from the film…well, this would be one hell of a soundtrack/score to crank up either in the car or sound system with both excellent orchestral work as well as very deep choral moments. Martin Phipps does an excellent job here in terms of pure musicianship if not completely being successful to marrying film events and score into a optimal union.

Ultimately, while I’ll admit I fall more on the positive side with this film than the negative…I can’t really recommend it either. Or at least, I can only recommend it to those with knowledge of this era of history or are just straight-up Napoleon fans. This kind of background allows you to mentally fill in the gaps that the film’s lack of a structured storyline could cause others to find it lacking. So if you’ve done your homework, yes, check it out. If you’re just looking for an evening’s entertainment, this film is likely not going to be for you…as many of the other viewers I exited the film with complained of being bored with it. I’m hopeful that, just like Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, that the longer cut improves on this theatrical release, yielding yet another masterwork…but, given that we know of only a limited streaming release at the time of this writing, will it get in front of the audiences that might appreciate it? Put simply, Napoleon as it is now raises too many questions for a solid recommendation.

Post-Script: Since writing this review, I’ve seen other opinions raising both the issues of historical accuracy and Franco-phobia within the film. In an effort to provide as much insight as I can, I didn’t think I should publish this review without at least commenting on these matters. First off, let’s tackle ‘historical accuracy’. To be blunt, I’m not exactly sure why this is an issue. Historical accuracy has never been a priority to most historical dramas…unless of course it served the plot or story that the filmmakers were planning on putting forth anyway. Yes, historical accuracy would have been nice…but so would a complete narrative and neither Scott nor screenwriter David Scarpa could be bothered with that either. This leads us to the next issue that the film is anti-French. Hrm…a film about a French emperor directed by an Englishman…nope, can’t see any problems there. Sarcasm aside, while it doesn’t necessarily paint Napoleon in the best light, I find two faults in taking up this argument: first, to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, all films have their own point of view and second, I’d suggest that it’s difficult to infer any degree of intent from a narrative structure that is either entirely absent or has such gaps/holes to seem absent. Does it paint Napoleon in a favorable light? That’s up to the viewer, but I can certainly see where a case can be made that it does not. However, like many modern ‘-phobias’, does it incite hatred or harm to a group or subset of people? Absolutely not. I can’t imagine a single filmgoer coming out of this saying “Goddammit, now I’m gonna go hunt me some Frogs!” Whereas in some instances, this is a very real fear for other groups and peoples. So rest easy Frenchies, you’re gonna be just fine.

Even with this re-evaluation, my opinion of the film really doesn’t change: it’s beautiful to look at, yet requires either pre-existing knowledge or homework in European history on the part of the viewer thanks to an incredibly lacking, if at all present, narrative. If you think you’ll be able to fill in the blanks on your own, I still think Napoleon is worth checking out. But the sheer fact that I cannot universally recommend the film earns it a Plain Cat at best due to the flaws that my main review focuses on.

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