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I have… thoughts on Napoleon.

I went to the theater last Tuesday without especially high hopes. Phoenix seemed wrong for the role, and what I’d heard about the story suggested that Scott had taken on too much and too little at the same time. Unfortunately, the experience matched my expectations. Napoleon is bad as history and not very good as a film.

Starting with the history, it… uh… ain’t good. The French Revolution is tricky to explain on film but Scott doesn’t really try very hard. The battle scenes are perfectly adequate cinematically and altogether pointless historically. To my inexpert eye Waterloo did less violence to history than Austerlitz, but I’ve read some accounts that argue that the former was more badly botched than the latter. But Austerlitz is not put into any kind of meaningful context for the viewer; it’s a set piece that exists for the purpose of filming a cool battle. Waterloo, Toulon, and Borodino are better contextualized, although Borodino is depicted in such perfunctory fashion that it’s tough to understand what the big deal was. It’s an awkward historical moment to be celebrating the valor and resoluteness of the Russian soldier, but the Russian campaign was so episodic as to be nearly unintelligible. And then Leipzig never happened and Napoleon abdicates for some reason. A map explaining the magnitude of Napoleon’s victories and the dominant position held by France would have been enormously helpful at certain points during the film.

And a lot of this simply doesn’t matter if Scott gets the story right. Every historical film demands compressions and skips and the folding together of characters and events. But Scott leaves so much out and makes such puzzling choices about what he puts in that it’s hard to understand what makes Napoleon a uniquely important 19th century figure, or even why he’s a particularly interesting figure alongside all of the other relevant personalities of the time. And that’s just weird; how do you make a movie about Napoleon Bonaparte that leaves us generally unimpressed with Napoleon Bonaparte? The script is hilarious in parts (the above cited line is the best in the film), although I couldn’t shake my concern that Scott hadn’t intended the humor. Scott puts enormous weight on Bonaparte’s relationship with Josephine, which is certainly understandable but quickly becomes tiresome as the stakes of the rest of Napoleon’s career rapidly overwhelm the dramatic weight of his marital struggles. Napoleon’s marshals (a huge part of his story and certainly a way in which a director could offer some perspective on the character) are barely present.

With respect to the acting, the only performance I really bought was Rupert Everett as Wellington. He approached the role with a “seriously, this shit again?” attitude that was appropriate both the to historical reputation of the character and to the character’s position within the film. Vanessa Kirby was fine as Josephine. Most of the rest of the cast was unmemorable. As for Phoenix… well, it’s obviously a struggle to depict a character aging over the course of 20 (32 if you count St. Helena) years, but Phoenix and Scott didn’t even really try; Phoenix is obviously a 49 year old man at Toulon and also obviously a 49 year old man at Waterloo, notwithstanding the weight of empire upon those delicate shoulders. The only scenes I truly enjoyed were the conversations between Bonaparte and the emperors of Russia and Austria. Phoenix is disarmingly friendly and engaging, and for a moment Scott is able to show some of the truly fascinating aspects of the character of an artillery officer playing host to the heads of the most ancient and powerful families in Europe.

On this last it’s worth noting that I do plan to watch the four hour cut of this film which will become available on Apple TV in the next month or so. It’s extremely unlikely that this is a Once Upon a Time in America, a film whose genius was clear despite the awful mangling of the studio cut and which the final cut revealed to be a true masterpiece. I’m not even sure that this is a Justice League, a very bad movie turned into a mediocre movie in the extended cut. But I’m willing to give it a try and see if Scott can make this story make sense in a longer format. At this point in the history of the relationship between film and prestige television I’m not sure it’s a good idea for anyone to even consider trying to depict Napoleon Bonaparte’s life in four (much less two and a half) hours; the story could be told so much better in a two or three season HBO series that let the history and characters breathe.

See also this list of best Napoleons in film history.

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