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In Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon,’ the emperor has no clothes but plenty of ego

Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from “Napoleon” (Apple TV+)

In Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon,” Joaquin Phoenix portrays the legendary French emperor in a film that defies the traditional grandeur of historical epics. With a runtime of two hours and thirty-eight minutes, the movie introduces us to a Napoleon who is far from the stoic conqueror of history textbooks. Instead, we see a young Bonaparte riddled with fear and impulsivity, qualities that persist throughout the film as he ascends to power and leads his armies across Europe with reckless abandon.

Scott’s biopic is more critical than celebratory, painting Napoleon not as a Great Man but as a petulant child in the guise of an emperor. This character-driven narrative focuses on Napoleon’s internal struggles and the chaotic manner in which he gains and exercises power. His infamous ego is on full display, particularly in his confrontations with the British and his dismissive reactions to personal news during the Egyptian campaign.

The film also delves into the complexities of Napoleon’s relationship with Joséphine, portrayed by Vanessa Kirby. Their romance and subsequent marriage are fraught with tension and betrayal, yet it’s a relationship that humanizes the often mythologized figure. As the story unfolds, the film portrays Napoleon’s rise and reign as a series of tumultuous events, leading to his ultimate demise.

Scott’s depiction of historical events like the siege of Toulon, the coup of 1799, and the Battle of Austerlitz is meticulous, yet the screenplay by David Scarpa seems to question the authenticity of Napoleon’s legacy. The film juxtaposes his public persona with his private vulnerabilities, making it difficult to reconcile the image of the legendary emperor with that of the insecure man presented on screen.

“Napoleon” offers a satirical look at the emperor’s life, as well as a critical assessment of the male ego in power. The film is a visual spectacle that showcases Scott’s expertise in creating grand cinematic experiences. Yet, despite its ambitious scope, the narrative sometimes struggles to integrate Napoleon’s military genius with his flawed character, leaving the audience to wonder how such a man could have risen to such heights.

The movie is also expected to have a longer, four-hour director’s cut, which may provide a more in-depth look at Napoleon’s life and times. This cut could potentially balance the personal and political aspects of the story more effectively.

Scott’s “Napoleon” stands out for its unorthodox approach to the historical epic genre. It challenges the glorification of historical figures by exposing their weaknesses and failures. The film, like Scott’s previous work “The Last Duel,” is a commentary on the destructive nature of male ambition. This thematic choice is clear in the film’s final moments, which depict Napoleon’s downfall both literally and metaphorically.

While not everything in “Napoleon” may work seamlessly, the film’s unique perspective and critical stance offer a thought-provoking and unconventional look at one of history’s most iconic figures. It’s a bold move from an accomplished director, one that suggests a continued interest in examining and demystifying the great men of history through the lens of cinema. MDT/AP

“Napoleon,” an Apple Studios release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and brief language. Running time: 158 minutes.

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