Perhaps this is the perspective that Scott, an 85-year-old Englishman, learned in school; certainly the script (written by David Scarpa, who previously collaborated with Scott on All the Money in the World) seems to have more respect for the Duke of Wellington, the Anglo-Irish aristocrat who handed Bonaparte his final defeat, than it does for Bonaparte himself. Wellington, played by Rupert Everett, describes Bonaparte as ill-mannered “vermin” ahead of the Battle of Waterloo, and by that point the audience has every reason to agree, having watched Phoenix bumble his way through dozens of awkward and embarrassing set pieces.
Much of the awkwardness centers around Bonaparte’s relationship to Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), which provides most of the script’s dramatic heft. It’s no exaggeration to say that the film presents Josephine’s genitalia as the driver of a whole era of world history (10 minutes in, Kirby channels Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, and from then on Bonaparte is under her spell). Phoenix’s Bonaparte is motivated entirely by overcompensation for sexual inadequacy, which is neither creative nor persuasive, but at least it scans in the context of the film. It’s far less clear what motivates Josephine—status? love? lust? money?—but she does make for a plausible object of desire, a haughty dominatrix who cuckolds Bonaparte into invading most of Europe.
Phoenix wears his uniform well and plays Bonaparte with the weirdness and comic timing demanded of him, but neither he nor the script offers any explanation of why the whole world was mesmerized by this man. He seems to possess neither intellect nor charisma; even his greatest battlefield victories seem to happen almost in spite of him. In more intimate settings, he comes across as ridiculous. “I enjoy food! Destiny has brought me this lamb chop,” Bonaparte proclaims over dinner, defending himself against Josephine’s barbs about his expanding waistline. It’s unclear why he would inspire either fear or love in anyone, from fellow rulers to the soldiers under his command. While I didn’t expect Scott to actually depict the drafting of the French civil code on screen, he might have portrayed Bonaparte as capable of doing such a thing.