By Don Morton
December 7, 2023
This is of course Sir Ridley Scott’s factually questionable take on the rise and fall of the titular French Emperor (Joaquin Phoenix), from his humble Corsican beginnings through his military and political achievements to his banishment and eventual death in exile.
In truth, Napoleon rose to power by capitalizing on social discord. He was a mediocre general, losing more battles than he won, and ultimately responsible for the deaths of three million people. Think Henry Kissinger.
Reviews have been mixed. Like its subject, the film has more misses than hits. The French (surprise!) don’t like it, but the French don’t like anything. They’re appalled that it was made by a Brit and stars a Yank.
The film’s strengths are the intricate, beautifully filmed battle scenes. Few do spectacle as well as Scott, as evidenced by Alien, Gladiator and Blade Runner. (But mention must also be made here of turkeys like House of Gucci, Robin Hood and Legend). Historical accuracy is less in evidence. The man never used Egypt’s pyramids for target practice.
But epic sweep goes only so far. While the battles are thrilling, it’s difficult to tell the armies apart, which limits the suspense. The conflicts alternate with the general’s returning home, more boy than man. In a way, a cautionary tale of the perils of masculine insecurity.
And while Phoenix is without a doubt one of the most committed actors working today, this time he fails to disappear into the role, and the result is not the brilliant character study he perhaps envisioned. It’s a rare misfire for him, or at best a miscasting. And this may be petty, but his jarring American accent doesn’t help.
Bottom line, I found this stumbling French history lesson a major bore. Ironically, despite its 2:38 run time, it seems rushed. No mention is made of such things as the legal code he established that is still used, amended, in many countries today. Or his effectively establishing the discipline of Egyptology, saving that ancient civilization from the ignorance of the day. Perhaps a mini-series would have been a better platform. Rumors are that Scott is contemplating a four-and-a-half-hour director’s cut. Mon Dieu! (158 min)
Check it out in theaters now