Napoleon (Christian Movie Review)
About The Movie
Arguably few historical figures have achieved the near-mythical status that Napoleon Bonaparte has. In a seemingly perfect match of creative mind and source material, esteemed director Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator, Blade Runner) brings the legendary Frenchman to the big screen in a historical epic from Apple Studios. Unfortunately, Napoleon largely reflects the film’s depiction of its titular character—a façade of outwardly impressive spectacle that cannot mask the emptiness beneath the surface. Despite some sweeping visuals and visceral battle scenes, Napoleon is almost shockingly uncompelling.
The question of historical accuracy is valid but beyond the purpose of this review. I’m more interested in the story the film tells. To that end, Ridley Scott is no stranger to directing visually striking historical epics. In Napoleon, everything looks impressive, but the film struggles with a lack of narrative cohesion. Scott is unable to weave each isolated event into a compelling, unified tale. Title cards appear on screen to provide important information on what is happening, but it often feels like the more interesting story developments are unfolding in the space between these events.
The film also struggles to explore Napoleon as an interesting character study. Joaquin Phoenix is an exceptional actor. But whether the fault lies with his acting or with the script/direction, his performance is one-note and lacks magnetism. It is hard to imagine a more unfavorable portrayal of the French general. He appears as a caricature of an immature and repressed man-child. The historical Napoleon may well have been such a man, but the film stubbornly refuses to juxtapose that unfavorable reality with his larger-than-life public persona. His monumental achievements occur almost as footnotes as the film revels in his personal failures. His ascension to emperor is largely glossed over, with the film focusing instead on his sexual impotence.
Napoleon is established as such an unsympathetic character that when troops rally to his side upon his return from exile, audiences may wonder why. The creative decision to frame the film as a total deconstruction of the mythical Napoleon is a valid approach, but it is only effective if the recontextualized man is contrasted against his legendary persona. Otherwise, the film becomes a monotonous 2.5 hours of dwelling on a sad, miserable man.
The story divides its focus between two contrasting conflicts: the literal battlefield of France and its enemies and the metaphorical battlefield at home with Napoleon’s complicated and toxic relationship with his wife, Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby). The relationship drama often takes center stage, with the film allotting as much screen time to Napoleon’s unsuccessful sexual encounters as to his victorious military battles (for more on the sexual elements, see below). These domestic scenes are gratuitous and repetitive, despite a solid performance by Kirby.
On the other front, Ridley Scott clearly knows how to construct a battle scene. Napoleon is at its best when delivering period piece aesthetics and spectacle. The action is intense, and the vast scope is dazzling. Yet despite the visceral action, the audience feels disconnected from it by the time the famed Battle of Waterloo arrives. Viewers have been given no reason to feel invested in Napoleon, and without any established characters on the opposing side of the conflict, everything feels hollow and meaningless. Perhaps the point is to demystify the man and the famous events associated with his legend, exposing the empty futility of selfish male vanity. But it doesn’t make for an exciting finish, no matter how impressive the visual spectacle.
Napoleon may have been a tactical genius, but Napoleon demonstrates little ability to conquer audiences. A disjointed, repetitive narrative and the depiction of its title character in a singularly negative and simplistic light add up to a disappointing historical epic that fails to do justice to one of history’s most intriguing figures.
Engage The Film
Power and Dominance
Ridley Scott previously explored the theme of male/female power dynamics in his film The Duel. In Napoleon, Scott juxtaposes Napoleon’s outward bravado as a national military hero with the pathetic and emotionally stunted man he is in his domestic life.
Napoleon struggles to see the world through any lens other than ambition. He is driven to dominate in both his public and private domains. Thus, his domestic life is treated as just another battlefield. He becomes enraged at his wife for sleeping with another man, despite freely admitting that he’s had multiple affairs himself. In a scene showing Napoleon holding his newborn child for the first time, faint sounds of battle frame the moment as another victory.
Concerning his military greatness, Napoleon says, “It’s just geometry. I know precisely where to place a cannon.” For these tactical skills, he is revered and honored, despite his selfish character and lack of integrity.
The theme of toxic masculinity can be a hot topic, sometimes veering toward extremes that Christians may want to avoid. Napoleon’s message is simplistic, but it raises the question of why people are infatuated with outward power and male dominance and conquest rather than with biblical masculinity. It also exposes how impressive public personas often lead people to overlook private failures. The Bible exhorts men: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14). Biblically, outward strength, if not balanced by inward love, is empty.
Truth and Perception
The film suggests that Napoleon’s reputation is based on an illusion. A closing title card gives a count of all the French lives lost during his wars, painting him as a failure rather than a man worthy of esteem (again, historians may debate that perspective). In the film, Napoleon is obsessed with public perception and stubbornly seeks to frame the narrative in a positive light.
In one scene, Napoleon asks a counselor to lie on his behalf and is caught off guard when the other man refuses. The man responds that if he’s asked, he cannot do anything other than speak what he knows to be true. That concept appears to be foreign to Napoleon.
Throughout the movie there are frequent voiceovers of Napoleon and Joséphine reading their love letter correspondence. Filled with flowery language and romantic sentiments, these letters are in stark contrast to the unhappy, volatile relationship depicted on screen. The happy relationship, like many aspects of Napoleon’s life, is merely an illusion.
The film concludes with Napoleon writing memoirs and implies that even disgraced in exile, he will continue to obscure the truth and control public perception of himself. He achieved the power and esteem that he dearly sought, but he is a miserable man who failed to find any lasting joy or satisfaction in his life. The Bible declares, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32), but Napoleon is held captive to his pride and obsession with public opinion and is unable to find fulfillment in the lavish rewards of his achievements.