As someone fascinated with the Napoleonic era, I entered the theater to watch Ridley Scott’s take on the French emperor with high hopes – but walked out rather unsatisfied. Now showing in cinemas, Scott’s Napoleon aims more for low-brow laughs than an intricate exploration of the complex man behind the myth.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate some well-crafted comedy as much as the next person. But as a history buff who has eagerly studied the complicated realities and contradictions surrounding Napoleon Bonaparte, I found Scott’s broad buffoon caricature disappointing, if not slightly offensive.
Joaquin Phoenix seems game for the mocking, clownish camp on display as a bumbling emperor lucky enough to trip over his own feet and land on the throne of Europe. But for viewers seeking insightful historical drama, his performance lacks the nuance and gravitas I anticipated bringing Napoleon to life. Even Phoenix can’t seem to decide if he’s portraying fearsome conqueror or helpless idiot.
Scott certainly knows how to craft impressive period epics, as films like Gladiator attest. So I’m unsure why he opted for base mockery here over attempting an honest warts-and-all portrayal of the man who dominated Europe yet met his downfall overreaching in Russia. Reducing such a towering historical figure to cartoonish incompetence robs audiences of a chance at insightful commentary.
Perhaps moviegoers seeking lightweight laughs will find Scott’s abrupt tonal turn amusing enough. As a history lover though, I was left cold by the buffoonery on display that teaches us little of substance about Napoleon, Revolutionary France, or the birth of modern Europe beyond “be lucky enough and maybe you too can crowns”.
I suppose not every historical biopic need be high art. But for those like me fascinated with the real Napoleon behind the myths, I suggest looking elsewhere in theaters if you hope for anything deeper than the Emperor Without Clothes on full display here.