“Napoleon” offers so much.
The latest effort from the endlessly prolific filmmaker Ridley Scott, the historic epic dramatizes the fascinating life of French figure Napoleon Bonaparte, tracing his rise and eventual fall — only to be followed by a second rise and fall — and examining his love and, perhaps, downright obsession with his wife Josephine.
As it does so, “Napoleon” presents us with numerous battle sequences, the kind of spectacle-filled exercises at which Scott is so adept.
And while it gets an uneven performance by Joaquin Phoenix — who certainly looks the part at roughly Napoleon’s height at 5-foot-8 and regularly wearing the bicorne hat, ends pointed to the shoulders, that is synonymous with him — it is lifted by the level of excellence from co-star Vanessa Kirby, as Josephine, that we’ve come to expect.
It is fast-moving and generally entertaining.
“Napoleon” offers so much. And yet it leaves us wanting more.
Even at about two and a half hours, “Napoleon” plays like the Cliff Notes version of the French military leader-turned-emperor’s tale, so we hope we do get the promised option of a four-hour cut when the movie lands on Apple TV+. (In theaters this week and distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing, it primarily is an Apple Studios production.)
It feels as though we’ve been escorted too quickly through his career, even though the movie spends no time on his childhood, introducing us to him only when he is on the precipice of the first of many military victories. As “Napoleon” progresses, he ascends (“Long live the republic!” men shout as he is promoted captain to brigadier general) and ascends (“Long live the emperor!” other men shout later, at his 1804 coronation) with relative ease.
At least for a while, his greatest challenge is Josephine, with whom he is smitten upon their meeting at a ball when she asks him about his costume and he somewhat awkwardly replies that it is merely his military uniform.
Soon after that, she sends him a note asking for the pleasure of his company and, after smelling it, he rubs it against his neck.
At their lunch at an outdoor cafe, he pulls her chair closer to his, but it is a subsequent act of hers that suggests she is the one with the power in this dynamic. Even after their marriage, her rumored behavior will become a great distraction to him as he is trying to achieve glory for France in a faraway land.
Aside from the battle sequences, the scenes in which Phoenix and Kirby share the screen are the film’s strongest, thanks largely to all that Kirby (“The Crown,” “Pieces of a Woman”) can convey with her eyes and even just a few lines of dialogue. Theirs is a complex relationship, to say the least, and the film lacks a certain pop when Napoleon isn’t sparring — or conducting another activity — with the woman he can’t help but adore.
It doesn’t help that none of the film’s myriad other characters is remotely well-developed, including Napoleon’s brother, Lucien (Matthew Needham), and Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim), a key figure during the French Revolution. Napoleon’s meetings with rival heads of state, such as Édouard Philipponnat’s Alexander I, the tsar of Russia, are rather compelling, however, and Phoenix does some of his best work in those scenes.
At other times, the actor — who portrayed the villainous Roman Emperor Commodus in Scott’s Academy Award-winning 2000 film, “Gladiator,” and whom the director says he wanted for the role after seeing his excellent work in the titular role of 2019’s “Joker” — is simply underwhelming. No doubt Phoenix is going for subtlety, but the performance frequently feels flat.
Again, though, the battle sequences are there to pick up any slack. While they appear very modern in their execution, they thankfully fall short of feeling overly stylized, which could have nudged “Napoleon” into the realm of the action movie. The scene from one of the trailers where the French forces fire cannonballs at an enemy Napoleon has lured onto a snow-covered semi-frozen lake? Great stuff.
As a character study, “Napoleon” is effective but only SO effective. At one point, he is described by someone who knows him as “a man bent on peace at any cost.” Text the viewer is left with just before the closing credits roll suggests “Napoleon” is quite concerned with that cost, but we never truly get that impression until then.
What is the film ultimately saying about him? As penned by David Scarpa — writer of Scott’s 2017 film “All the Money in the World” and his upcoming “Gladiator 2” — at least with this theatrical cut, it’s a little murky.
Perhaps that extra hour and a half will tell us.
When: Nov. 22.
Rated: R for strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and brief language.
Runtime: 2 hours, 38 minutes.
Stars (of four): 2.5.