Half of a good movie: Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon’ has some fine moments—but it feels over-edited and incomplete

Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, the director’s take on the military career and love life of the legend, feels like half of a movie—but that half of a movie is pretty good, thankfully.

Joaquin Phoenix steps into the title role, and while his performance still includes some of the usual offbeat/weird takes for which he is known, this is one of his more restrained performances. He actually makes Napoleon Bonaparte look semi-normal; he has a few rants, but he’s mostly a quiet and sensible gent. I’m guessing a lot of twisted moments wound up on the cutting-room floor.

There’s internet buzz, fueled by Scott himself, suggesting there is a four-hour cut of the film that will eventually hit Apple TV. (The one in theaters is a little more than 2 1/2 hours long.) Napoleon Bonaparte is a grand figure, and Phoenix flavors his characterization with some wacky, childish and eccentric personality traits at times, yet it all seems a bit “edited.” Perhaps a true fleshing out of Scott’s vision will bring it all home.

Phoenix must have done some crazy stuff for the cameras. Come on … it’s Napoleon! The guy had to be nuts! Phoenix plays by the standard biopic rules for much of the running time—wear the hat, ride the horse, rouse the troops, etc. He’s good, but this calls for something great.

That said, this theatrical cut certainly has its moments, and it’s peppered with the sort of visual ambition that has propelled Scott’s career since the ’70s. There are art-direction moments that are among the best in 2023; this is just not the movie event for which a lot of us were hoping.

The battle at Waterloo stands out, as does a sequence involving frantic soldiers and horses falling through ice, with their blood creating bright red clouds underwater. Scott does a good job of showing the chaos of the French legal system, including the coups and, most notably, the sad beheading of Marie Antoinette. The film has Napoleon in attendance for her death, but I don’t think that’s historically accurate. (Actually, there’s probably a lot of stuff in this movie that’s historically inaccurate.)

Vanessa Kirby gives a fine performance as Josephine Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sometimes-disinterested eventual queen. Their relationship squabbles provide some of the film’s best drama, as well as a few good laughs. Rupert Everett is especially memorable as the Duke of Wellington, the British commander who, along with the Prussians, handed Mr. Bonaparte his eventual defeat at Waterloo, and exiled him to a lonely island death. Everett’s cold, calculated approach to the role might be the film’s most fully realized performance.

In this day and age of extended cuts and theatrical limited television series, I want to see more. I want to see more of Napoleon going crazy in the off hours. I want to see more of Josephine’s story before her marriage and after her exile. I want more of Napoleon hanging out on a fly-infested island, still walking around in his funny hat. And most importantly, I want to see some of Napoleon’s infamous visit to a waterpark with Bill and Ted, where he consumed copious amounts of ice cream. (Oh, wait … that actually didn’t happen. He never did meet Keanu Reeves.)

The final verdict is still out on Ridley Scott and his Napoleon. It’s Ridley’s fault that I am being greedy, because he dangled the director’s cut carrot yet again. Here’s hoping this first cut is nothing but a sampler of a grander, crazier vision to come.

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