Ridley Scott’s Napoleon: Accidentally a Comedy?: It’s a portrayal so undignified that I almost expected ABBA’s “Waterloo” to play over the credits. (David Klion, November 20, 2023, New Republic)
But then there are the dialogue and the performances, above all Phoenix’s, which suggest a different genre altogether: high camp. At the critics’ screening I attended, there were regular snickers at a film that isn’t being marketed as a comedy—and yet I suspect that laughter is the reaction Scott is going for. Napoleon doesn’t make a lot of historical arguments, but it does have a perspective on its title character: It sees him not as a genius or a modernizer or a meritocrat, but as an arrogant, vain, bratty, ultimately pitiful little autocrat whose zeal for greatness cost far too many men their lives.
Perhaps this is the perspective that Scott, an 85-year-old Englishman, learned in school; certainly the script (written by David Scarpa, who previously collaborated with Scott on All the Money in the World) seems to have more respect for the Duke of Wellington, the Anglo-Irish aristocrat who handed Bonaparte his final defeat, than it does for Bonaparte himself. Wellington, played by Rupert Everett, describes Bonaparte as ill-mannered “vermin” ahead of the Battle of Waterloo, and by that point the audience has every reason to agree, having watched Phoenix bumble his way through dozens of awkward and embarrassing set pieces.
Much of the awkwardness centers around Bonaparte’s relationship to Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), which provides most of the script’s dramatic heft. It’s no exaggeration to say that the film presents Josephine’s genitalia as the driver of a whole era of world history (10 minutes in, Kirby channels Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, and from then on Bonaparte is under her spell). Phoenix’s Bonaparte is motivated entirely by overcompensation for sexual inadequacy, which is neither creative nor persuasive, but at least it scans in the context of the film. It’s far less clear what motivates Josephine—status? love? lust? money?—but she does make for a plausible object of desire, a haughty dominatrix who cuckolds Bonaparte into invading most of Europe.
Rather than Abba, the soundtrack should be Benny Hill. But the big problem is that when Mr. Scott realized he’d accidentally made a comedy he didn’t go all in on the slapstick. Instead of snickering at what he’s put on the screen we could be guffawing along with him.