I just wanted a movie worth watching…But like Napoleon’s lust for conquest, glory, and Josephine, we can’t always get what we want.
Can we not find and ensconce ourselves in a happy medium of storytelling, just once in a while, to say we have done so and see how it feels?
Watching Ridley Scott’s Napoleon in the theater left the audience with the impression that their seats were the point of suspension for the great narrative pendulum to pass back and forth before their very eyes for the better part of three hours. Academics, philosophers, historians both amateur and professional, and all manner of cultural commentating rehashed “great man theory” debates in the run up to the film about a figure so dominating that his era is called “the Napoleonic era/wars” after the exploits of Bonaparte. With the casting of Joaquin Phoenix, his skills and body of work suggested perhaps a character study on the insecurities of the great man by an actor known for his intensity and darker roles when dealing with complex characters. So, the question was, which was the audience going to get: great man hagiography with giant battles, or brooding private insecurities of the mythologized legend?
Faced with this choice, Ridley Scott answered the question with “Oui, plus de cowbell!” giving us this pendulum-swing mess of a movie that goes all over the place before reaching its destination, failing to explain where we destined and how we all got there.
Personally, in the pantheon of screenwriting, I rank the dialogue where an irate Napoleon stabs his meat with a fork and whines/bellows “This lamb chop is my DESTINY!” at his non-compliant wife at the end of a table full of dinner guests ahead of “I hate sand” from Attack of the Clones and just behind “It’s time to show the Fire Nation that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs” from M. Night Shyamalan’s desecrations of Avatar: The Last Airbender and the vernacular usage of the English language.
Brief aside: For a much better review of the film itself, do read our friend Rufus Hickok’s take on Napoleon, as he is my superior in all things French (that’s Dr. Rufus, French history Ph.D. to you), cultural criticisms, and writing in the English language about all subjects French and otherwise.