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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

“Napoleon” obscures history in an unobscure fashion

Kellyn Taylor

Spoiler Warning

“Napoleon,” Ridley Scott’s latest film, aims to depict the adult life of French emperor and military commander Napoleon Bonaparte. However, sitting in the AMC Boston Common 19, I wondered: how well does this movie actually accomplish this? How does the quality and historical accuracy of the film serve viewers? 

The film consists of sharp parallels between Napoleon’s (Joaquin Phoenix) military career and rise to political power and the trials and tribulations of Napoleon’s relationship with his wife, Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby). The movie alternates back and forth between these A and B plots on what felt like a scene-by-scene basis.

Although there is debate on how important historical accuracy is in fiction, the falsehoods in “Napoleon” are overtly harmful to the film’s integrity—specifically in regards to his political success. The battles he won overshadow Napoleon’s failures and corruption, leading him to be painted as an idolized, successful figure while simultaneously ignoring how he was a cruel dictator

Since the film almost solely highlights Napoleon’s military victories and how he “saved” France in the wake of the French monarchy, it fails to paint a real picture. Upon crowning himself emperor, he operated self-interested and saw everybody as inherently below him. Perpetuating the long-standing narrative that Napoleon is an idol is harmful in spreading a critical understanding of history.

The movie takes place from when Napoleon was 24 in 1793 to when he died in 1821. This timespan allows the audience to see his professional and interpersonal rise and fall. The audience sees him climbing the military ranks and being crowned emperor. They see him meeting and marrying Joséphine, their mutual infidelity, and lack of children (which allegedly caused them to divorce). They see the undying love he claims to have for her and France.

A question begs itself: what was the film trying to say, beyond maybe “Wow, he was really victorious and so in love”? Hopefully, more than that feeble rhetoric. One may take away that Joséphine’s lack of faith and fertility was so depressing to Napoleon that it contributed to, if not caused, his political downfall.

When it is first revealed to the audience that Joséphine had cheated on him for the first time, Napoleon is infuriated. In turn, the movie vilifies Joséphine: Napoleon was in love with her, she ruined that, etcetera. He almost kicks her to the curb, and she cries. There’s this impression that her “toxicity” was meant to almost make her the film’s antagonist. All the while, Napoleon cheats on her throughout their relationship.

Ultimately, the movie frames a straightforward narrative that, as we see him writing her love letters while he is off on his military exploits, she has distracted and interrupted his career, which leads to his inevitable undoing.

Despite these criticisms, the film does not portray Napoleon as a fragile victim or a morally perfect person. Some complexity and gray-area aspects add legitimacy to the film. For example, the film is honest about the death toll of the battles he helped or did incite. He moves with his own volition, showing how he is dangerous, even if the extent of the damage he does isn’t in the film.

The film also incorporates elements of comedy. Joaquin Phoenix does a great job executing comedic body language, specifically in the earlier scenes with Joséphine. These elements bring some variety to what otherwise is a tonally stagnant film. However, no comedy is incorporated  during some of the more severe parts of the film, which helps to not trivialize the severity of what occurs.

There are also some technically impressive scenes, specifically during some battles. The sets are beautiful, such as what was done for Napoleon’s estate. Also, Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby put on good performances. The film’s color palette was rustic and muted, which was appealing aesthetically. Scott manages to transport the audience into this story; even if it can be dull at times, it can draw one back in.

More than anything, though, it was monotonous. The point-blank storylines that hardly build, mixed with the lack of intriguing or essential rhetorical elements, led to a sense of dullness.

“Napoleon” has already reaped criticism and mixed reviews, some of which Scott has snarkily responded to. When French critics accused the movie of being pro-British and anti-French, Scott replied, “The French don’t even like themselves.”

Another example of his confidence (or, in some contexts, defiance) is that the 2.5-hour film has a 4+ hour extended director’s cut that Scott plans to bring to Apple TV+ later. Scott believes in this film and that it can be longer, despite some thinking it’s already too long.

Ultimately, “Napoleon” tries to be a biopic, though it falls short in capturing his life. The story repetitively goes over certain parts of his story without building any objective complexity. Despite these issues, some of the shots are visually beautiful and technically well-done, and the progression of the plotlines is narratively coherent.

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About the Contributor
Sasha Zirin, Assistant Living Arts Editor
Sasha Zirin, they/them, is a sophomore hailing from the Washington, D.C. metro area, majoring in journalism. They hold the role of Assistant Living Arts Editor and derive immense satisfaction from writing across the spectrum of news and the living arts. Sasha is an active contributor to Emerson's arts publication, EM Magazine, and maintains a robust affiliation with the Emerson Poetry Project. During their free moments, they indulge in their love for reading, drawing, knitting, and watching movies.

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