Napoleon Bonaparte is a monumental historical figure. It only makes sense that a biopic of his life on screen – directed by none other than Ridley Scott – should be equally monumental. Well, in theory.
The film starring Joaquin Phoenix, now out in UAE cinemas, ticks many of the conventional boxes expected of an epic historical Hollywood blockbuster. There's outstanding costumes, beautiful cinematography, bold imagery and a captivating score.
However, the portrait of the polarising figure and the way it is told is anything but captivating.
Who was Napoleon? Well, it depends what version of history you’re following. From a power-hungry political animal to a patriotic genius, a pillaging tyrant or an average-looking man with a penetrating gaze who made up for his alleged short stature with a commanding presence, above all else, Napoleon was complex, if not perplexing.
All of this is inconsequential though, because in this film, none of these Napoleons make an appearance.
Phoenix plays Napoleon – the general, first consul and then emperor of France – as a grumpy, irritable man, prone to nonsensical and erratic outbursts. Even his subtle facets of vulnerability – the way he covers his ears when cannons burst, his panicked breathing during the first (of many) battles, feel like a forced and lazy attempt to humanise Napoleon.
Scowling and yet expressionless, temperamental for show with a sense of humour that doesn't land, it feels as though Phoenix may have taken cues on how to play the character not from historical accounts, but from the behaviour of rapper Kanye West.
Also, Phoenix’s Napoleon may be the only time we hear the figure speak with an American accent. Not only does this crucial detail pull viewers out of the story, it’s also comical in all the wrong ways.
No one should depend on a Hollywood film for historical accuracy. They exist to entertain, or at least inspire curiosity into the past. And in this regard, one can forgive many things. Bad costumes, questionable special effects, dubious performances, inaccuracies in histories or bad accents, in small doses, don’t ruin a film for me.
But one element that is hard to fathom is a writer, or director’s failure, to keep their audience engaged. In the end, it's all about storytelling.
It’s unfair in many ways to portray the very full life of a towering figure like Napoleon in one film. It’s mainly unfair to the audience – two hours and 38 minutes is a long time to stare at Phoenix's begrudged face as he attempts to save his marriage (or at least make it work) while conquering Europe.
This was also the film's main issue. Is this the story of Napoleon's military life? Or is the main plot his tumultuous and toxic relationship with his wife Josephine?
The film does a poor job at cohesively fusing Napoleon’s personal and political lives, which all versions of history tell us, bled into each other. They are two simultaneous storylines that meet at random touchpoints only to veer off into another battle, all of which are indistinguishable from one another at some point.
It is a frustrating experience, attempting to understand this portrait of Napoleon. The tagline of the poster for the film reads: “He came from nothing… he conquered everything".
But did he really come from nothing? Napoleon was born into an aristocratic family and descended from Italian nobility. One would assume the film would show us this version of "nothing", but it does not. There are flashes of his mother and brother, with no conclusions to their presence in his story.
Apart from that, his rise to “conquer everything” is marred with confusion.
Scott depicts an ambitious character without a tangible source for his motivation and his rise to power without a clear direction in how he achieved this. While the film attempts to present an analysis of the male ego, this Napoleon is, at best, a caricature of a complex man with an American accent and a sour expression.
Perhaps the worst thing about the film is how it leaves the audience with the same question it has from the start – who exactly was Napoleon Bonaparte?
Napoleon is in cinemas across the UAE