“Napoleon” begins in the midst of the French Revolution, with a then-Captain Napoleon witnessing the execution of Marie Antoinette. It’s bloody and gruesome, and fear grips the country as the guillotine becomes ever-present. In the midst of all this, Napoleon takes command and leads troops into battle — a battle he easily wins. This catapults him from captain to general, and before we know it, he’ll be crowned emperor, too. How? I just saw the movie, and I honestly couldn’t tell you how it all went down. Because everything feels rushed. One thing you can say about “Napoleon” — it’s not slow. The film moves at near breakneck speed, seemingly sprinting through Napoleon’s ascendency. At one point, a character matter-of-factly states that 15 years have gone by, and I almost did a double-take. Really? It sure didn’t feel that way.
In the midst of Napoleon’s military campaigns and battles — which Scott stages masterfully — is the story of his romance with Joséphine, played by Vanessa Kirby. Kirby fares better than Phoenix here, perhaps because her role is freer and not burdened by carrying the entire film. Kirby portrays Joséphine as playful and commanding, and the turbulent romance between the lovers is the film’s highlight. At one point, Napoleon learns that Joséphine has taken a lover and straight-up abandons his troops to go home and confront her. She’s repentant, begging forgiveness. And then a curious thing happens — after the film cuts away from her apology, it then finds her in command, making Napoleon admit that he’s nothing without her. It’s the balance of this relationship that’s truly fascinating, and I only wish the film had more of it.