Joaquin Phoenix Borders on Catatonic in ‘Napoleon’

The result is a colossal bore that is never passionate, exciting, sexy or entertaining—save for exploding horses with their guts blown all over the landscape.

Joaquin Phoenix borders on catatonic as Napoleon. Courtesy of Apple TV Press

Another in a long list of flawed and boring movies about the Emperor of France, I could hardly sit through Ridley Scott’s Napoleon with my eyes open. I prefer both the classic 1927 silent film by Abel Gance and the 1954 flop Desiree with Marlon Brando as a miscast but memorable Bonaparte and rapturous Jean Simmons as Desiree Clary, the fiancee he should have married, who became Queen of Sweden, instead of the trashy, adulterous Josephine, who broke his heart and allegedly died of a nasty combination of diphtheria and syphilis. None of this, nor anything else that threatens to take Napoleon off the battlefield long enough to tell a moving or human story, is detailed enough to concern producer-director Ridley Scott, who is more interested in overloaded and overpopulated war scenes than illuminating history. The result is a colossal bore that is never passionate, exciting, sexy or entertaining, with an ill-fated titled performance by Joaquin Phoenix that borders on catatonic.

NAPOLEON ★★ (2/4 stars)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: David Scarpa
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby
Running time: 158 mins.

The tedium begins in 1794 when Robespierre’s reign of terror, symbolized by gambling and guillotines, ignited the French Revolution and war hero Napoleon Bonaparte was promoted to brigadier general of the French Republic. There is no mention of Desiree, but when he meets Josephine, she spreads her legs and says, “If you look down, you’ll see a surprise. Once you see it, you’ll always want it.”  Whatever it is, I guess he likes it because he marries the trollop in Corsica, liberates Egypt, declaring, “I’m a brute that is nothing without you,” and by 1799, seizes power and divides the government with Josephine at his side.

Thus begins a dull history lesson, from the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 to the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, a defeat with 28,000 French losses. If this movie has any basis in fact, Napoleon’s conquests and failures were the most boring in history. Louis the 18th demanded his arrest, but French troops embraced him with loyalty. One battle after another, and he declared himself Emperor of France, leading up to the eventual Battle of Waterloo and yet another arsenal of cannons, swords and exploding horses with their guts blown all over the landscape.

Screen titles inform you what battle you’re watching, but the armies all look alike, so you never know who Napoleon is fighting or why. The longer it goes on, the more exasperated and emotionally uninvolved Joaquin Phoenix becomes, and the more I look at my watch. The only impressive thing about Ridley Scott’s direction is the masses of extras he employed—thousands of them. Even if they were paid as little as $10 an hour, the budget must have been astronomical. One battle scene follows the next, and we are forced to live through every one of them.

Through it all, the acting remains muted and forgettable, except for the eye-rolling over-emoting of Vanessa Kirby, a Josephine who is always on the verge of hysterics. The screenplay by David Scarpa is dreary and turgid, hopping around episodically without any character development and evoking only a sketchy picture of Napoleon’s historic rise and fall and his nasty, violent marriage to Josephine. There is nothing here to engage the heart, nothing to explain or demonstrate the qualities that made him charismatic enough to captivate France. A Napoleon without a valid Napoleon is a Fourth of July without a firecracker.

Joaquin Phoenix Borders on Catatonic in ‘Napoleon’