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Ridley Scott’s Napoleon



Napoleon, U.K./USA 2023. Directed by Ridley Scott, written by David Scarpa.

CineStar Theater 1, Row 4 Seat 11. Original version.

(This post also appears, in slightly different form, at my Instagram account betweendrafts.)

I really wanted to like this movie but it didn’t work out. I don’t care for it. It has a multitude of terrific set pieces with a solid cinematography and epic battles and intimate drama, but it left me cold from the first scene to the last.

The movie’s raging historical “inaccuracies” I don’t mind at all. It’s not a documentary, for goodness’ sake! But Scarpa’s screenplay is relentlessly mediocre, mitigated only by Phoenix and Kirby’s partly intense, partly whimsical performances despite terribly bland dialogue lines.

The movie remains a dazzling spectacle where each set piece is enjoyable to watch but never rises above itself. Lacking are a rich theme that holds everything together; an offer on an original perspective; and a truly dramatic conflict worth caring for—the internal conflict goes nowhere and the external conflict never evolves from nonstop historical date hopping into truly spell-binding engagements. (And you can see something resembling a plot only when you squint.)

Similarly, the movie’s various color moods are enjoyable to look at but tacked together—often abruptly—in ways more reminiscent of music videos than, say, Barry Lyndon. Phipps’s score is fine and memorable, but the soundtrack is overstuffed with Baroque pieces completely at odds with the era. (Not counting Telemann’s final years, Baroque music died in 1750; Rosseau stabbed its decayed corpse for good measure in Diderot’s Encyclopédie in 1768; and it was reanimated only after the 1830s thanks to Mendelssohn and others.)

The battle scenes are what one might call accomplished but nothing to write home about. Sure, choreography and cut do a good job, helping you keep track of what’s happening where to whom, but never really blow you out of your seat—even the haunting Austerlitz sequence doesn’t live up to its full potential. All that’s in no small part the fault of mediocre pacing, and that battles often abruptly end before meaningful pacing has a chance to kick in.

As an added annoyance, ads and trailers at the CineStar theater went on for interminable FORTY FUCKING MINUTES, rounded down. Atrocious.

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