The one born Napoleone di Buonaparte (thanks to being born on the Italian-speaking Corsica) has long bewitched great filmmakers. Charles Chaplin famously wanted to make a film about him. So did Stanley Kubrick, who had to settle for another lavish period epic: Barry Lyndon, arguably his greatest achievement. But Ridley Scott succeeded where they did not, and his latest, on the infamous (though complicated) French emperor, comes out in time for Thanksgiving. What better family movie than one about one of history’s most famous cuckolds!
A week-plus ahead of the release, the review embargo lifted, unleashing a tidal wave of takes. Some were rapturous, some where skeptical. Others, though, including Uproxx’s Mike Ryan, argued that it’s best when read as a very funny comedy.
Let’s break the reviews thus far down. Here are the ones that were enraptured by Scott’s take on arguably the best historical figure in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Journey. Like Peter Bradshaw over at The Guardian:
“Many directors have tried following Napoleon where the paths of glory lead, and maybe it is only defiant defeat that is really glorious. But Ridley Scott – the Wellington of cinema – has created an outrageously enjoyable cavalry charge of a movie, a full-tilt biopic of two and a half hours in which Scott doesn’t allow his troops to get bogged down mid-gallop in the muddy terrain of either fact or metaphysical significance, the tactical issues that have defeated other film-makers.”
Or Nicholas Barber at the BBC, who saw it as yet another example of kickass octagenarians:
Martin Scorsese is 80 and Ridley Scott is nearly 86, but neither director is showing any signs of slowing down. In recent years, in fact, their films have grown longer, more expensive and more ambitious than ever. The latest example is Napoleon, Scott’s 160-minute biopic of the French military commander and ruler, which sweeps through several countries and several decades, and has several thunderous battle scenes along the way. It’s an awe-inspiring achievement, although it may leave you with a greater appreciation of Scott’s leadership skills than of Napoleon’s.
Or Robbie Collin at The Telegraph, who argued that if 85-year-old Scott “has reached the final season of his filmmaking career, Napoleon is the ideal work of wintry grandeur to mark it.” Of star Joaquin Phoenix, Collin said he plays Napoleon with “startling blunt-force charisma,” and whose “sore-thumb manner makes his loopier lines land well.” He also says Rupert Everett as the Duke of Wellington is a “treat.”
Damon Wise, at Deadline, admits that the epic “doesn’t exactly fly by,” but that it is a fascinatingly complex character study:
What takes some getting used to is that the real movie is happening in Bonaparte’s mind; he is inured to the fact that his peers think he is a thug, that he has held the world hostage, that he will fight to achieve peace by any means necessary, and, while doing it, he is dismissive of almost everyone he meets (“It’s such a shame that such a great man should have no manners,” sniffs a British envoy). It’s hard to imagine an actor that could pull this off and make I t so engaging, but Phoenix does, an achievement made especially impressive when you realize that this self-styled master of war sent over 3 million men to their deaths in just 22 years.
The Independent saw it as pure Ridley:
In short, it’s the life of Napoleon as only Scott can tell it, full of verve, spectacle, and machismo. Its battle scenes are thrilling, a throwback to the sort of spectacle no one in Hollywood – save, well, Ridley Scott – is interested in anymore. But it can be equally dispassionate, in a way that duly and accurately captures the man one contemporary described as “a chess master whose opponents happen to be the rest of humanity”.
Now the haters. Less impressed was David Rooney over at The Hollywood Reporter, who said that “even with the near-constant bluster of infantry clashes, stealth attacks, skirmishes and thunderous bloodbaths, Napoleon often feels narratively sludgy, dull and flat.”
Mashable’s Kristy Puchko was also left unimpressed:
If you don’t know the story of Napoleon Bonaparte beyond pop culture standards of his short stature, big ego, and ABBA-recognized surrender at Waterloo, Scott won’t be much help. Napoleon’s script, written by David Scarpa, has a fitful pacing, leaping from highlights and lowlights with the casualness of a history professor chatting snoozily among his peers. Cursive title cards aim to add context with the whos, wheres, and whats, but they do so with a shrug, as if they are helpful reminders instead of introductions.
One pan, though, may have touched on something: Is Scott Napoleon supposed to be funny? That’s what The New York Post’s Johnny Oleksinski was wondering: “Depicting one of the most consequential figures in all of European history as a sourpuss clown who crazily rattles off nonsense is a brow-raising choice by Scott, screenwriter David Scarpa and the always peculiar Phoenix.”
Others wondered if it was funny on purpose. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich said he “wasn’t prepared for the extent to which his latest film utterly humiliates one of history’s most ambitious rulers.”
Jordan Hoffman, over at The Messenger, opens his rave by quoting what appears to be one of the film’s most guffaw-inducing lines: one of the most powerful figures in history whining to an opponent, “You think you are so great because you have BOATS?!?!” Hoffman wonders if we’re not supposed to be taking this film entirely seriously:
In addition to whining about British boats, Napoleon Bonaparte, whilst dining, declares that “destiny has brought me this lamb chop!” He also cuts through screenwriter David Scarpa’s finely tailored dialogue with an occasional “shooshh!” when he’s heard enough, and later makes what are essentially Three Stooges noises when his passions are inflamed by Josephine.
Two years ago, Scott gifted those spending Thanksgiving with their families at the movies with House of Gucci, a not-so-secretly hilarious epic where the most accurate Italian accent went to Jared Leto. Sounds like he’s gifted us again.
Napoleon hits theaters on November 22.