Most people know the French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte for his somewhat ironic height. For someone who is known for his big ego and successes, Napoleon is estimated to only measure 5 foot 7. Napoleon, directed by Ridley Scott, pokes fun at Napoleon’s height a few times, but the film otherwise treats Napoleon with the utmost respect in analyzing his character.
Napoleon presents a summary of the most important events of Napoleon’s life, both personally and politically. The story finds Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) at the beginning of his career during the French Revolution, and by the end of the film, the audience leaves Napoleon exiled and dead.
The core of the story is not Napoleon’s war endeavors, though that is what influences the trajectory of his life more than anything else. Scott makes sure that Napoleon’s relationship with his wife, Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), is Napoleon’s biggest regret by the end of the movie.
Napoleon and Joséphine share a horribly toxic relationship at the start of the film. Joséphine recently lost her husband to the revolution, and Napoleon was a power-hungry French general on the rise who was in need of a wife. They marry each other quickly for utility, not out of a real love that they shared for each other, which expectedly leads to some bumps in the road.
When Napoleon goes off to war, he finds that Joséphine is actually the anchor that he needs to connect him to France and to home. He writes to her almost daily, and the letters are read out over montages of war scenes and Napoleon’s victories. It’s clear that Napoleon, in being away from his love, has come to realize how much he actually values her and needs her.
Not once does Joséphine send a reply.
She’s instead busy having an affair with another soldier and is living lavishly off her husband’s riches. Once Napoleon hears of this, he abandons his post at war and goes home to France to confront his wife. Napoleon is ready to give up everything for his wife—he will be facing potential desertion charges. He can’t continue going to war if he doesn’t find a sense of peace with Joséphine, proving how much he loves and needs her.
By the time Joséphine realizes how much she loves Napoleon, it’s too late and the tables have turned. Napoleon is consumed by power and greed, leading him to value keeping his kingship and influence over his relationship with Empress Joséphine. Joséphine, burdened by her inability to have Napoleon’s children despite already having two with her former husband, is divorced by Napoleon for her lack of an heir.
Napoleon claims the divorce is for the greater good of his country, but what about the greater good of Joséphine? Napoleon has become a selfish tyrant who is too self-obsessed to remember that he once prioritized his wife over anything else. By the time he finds himself again, he’s too late to save his relationship with Joséphine.
It’s clear that much of Napoleon’s onscreen relationship with Joséphine was dramatized for the sake of a good story, but the historical inaccuracies don’t take away from the love story in the movie. Only a real history buff would criticize the movie for its mistakes, because the film is clearly not meant to be an exact replica of Napoleon’s life. A casual viewer will find nothing wrong with Napoleon’s recollections of history.
The set design only helps contribute to the feeling that Napoleon’s life contained contrast between his time with Joséphine and his time at war. When Napoleon was in France, there was clearly a sense of colonialism and decor that felt wealthy and elegant. Even before he assumed the title of king, Napoleon seemed like he was in the setting of one when he was in France.
When Napoleon was at war, he was always in the most brutal of settings. He endured the harsh winters of Russia, the rain of Waterloo, and the deserts of Egypt. The viewer was immersed in the scenes because of the beautifully detailed sets and images of war. Despite always wanting to fight for France, Napoleon clearly didn’t belong in any of these harsh environments.
The directorial choice that really holds Napoleon back is the film’s voices and dialogue. The movie takes place in a number of nations with distinct languages and accents. It makes sense that Napoleon should be consistently in English because it is an American-made movie. That being said, Phoenix using his regular voice was more reminiscent of his Joker performance than one of Napoleon Bonaparte. A change to a French accent would have felt more immersive.
Napoleon didn’t have the goal of showing accurate war depictions or showing audiences a historically accurate and detailed story of Napoleon’s life. The film is meant to spotlight the lesser-known relationship between Napoleon and Joséphine and should be recognized for the love story that it is.