‘Napoleon’ by Ridley Scott is an ‘epic hot mess of a historical drama’
Jacques-Louis David, the French neoclassical artist, received a curiously specific instruction from a disinterested Napoleon Bonaparte after he was commissioned to paint his portrait: “calme sur un cheval fougueux” (Calm on a fiery horse). The result is the most successful artistic representation of the emperor, “Napoleon Crossing the Alps.”
Astride a reared-up white steed amidst tempestuous weather, the portrait idealized Bonaparte as the self-assured leader that France needed to meet the moment at hand.
In contrast, the painter Pierre-Nicolas Dorsaz memorialized the occasion a little closer to the truth in his oil portrait, “Bonaparte Crossing the Alps.” Dorsaz rendered a distressed Napoleon as he rode a brown mule through the Great St. Bernard Pass.
Ridley Scott is more Dorsaz than David in his latest directorial feature, “Napoleon”, if Dorsaz had greater inclination to mock the French emperor because, for better or worse, he delivered an epic hot mess of a historical drama.
The first half of the film explored the meteoric rise of Napoleon. In the titular role and one of his funniest performances, Joaquin Phoenix never missed a beat as he transformed from a restless captain (frets on his horse as he leads the Siege of Toulon) to a petulant emperor (screams in annoyance at the Brits and their boats), a cuckolded husband (“The entire world knows about my arrival but not my wife?!”). Vanessa Kirby lends her patented coolness to her role as Empress Josephine, the constant refuge and source of pain of Napoleon.
For about an hour and a half, Scott demolished the Napoleonic lore, ridiculing his insecurities and profiling his marital problems for laughs.
Ridley Scott is more Dorsaz than David in his latest directorial feature, ‘Napoleon’, if Dorsaz had greater inclination to mock the French emperor because, for better or worse, he delivered an epic hot mess of a historical drama.
“Napoleon” faltered in the second half, which revolved around three decisive battles: the Battle of Austerlitz, the French Invasion of Russia, and the Battle of Waterloo. Considered as the pinnacle of Napoleon’s career, the Battle of Austerlitz is reduced to clever tricks.
The film breezed through his disastrous campaign against Russia and his historic failure in Waterloo. Scott staged one of the finest movie battle scenes in “The Kingdom of Heaven,” so it seems surprising he lost his deft touch in his latest feature.
Outstanding historical dramas foster debates and pursue matters relevant to our times. For the most part, the viewer was reflecting on what questions “Napoleon” seeks to answer. Or is it a considerate reminder that behind the strongman façade is an imperious and insecure idiot prone to hubristic decisions? That or Scott found it amusing to roast Napoleon Bonaparte in a lavish biopic that includes one of the worst and funniest sex scenes ever put on film.