How do you portray the past? It is a question that informs—and, at times, haunts—Ridley Scott's historical Napoleon, which first hit theaters this past Thanksgiving weekend. The film chronicles the life of the titular Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) from his early military success to his ascension as Emperor of the French and finally to his fall and eventual imprisonment on Saint Helena island.

One of the movie's greatest challenges is managing its sheer scope. While most other artistic works about Bonaparte center themselves on a specific aspect of his legacy, such as his bureaucratic work or his militaristic techniques, Scott opts to cover the entirety of Napoleon's career. The result is a compressed narrative wherein the screenwriters shorten many of Napoleon's defining military campaigns to a single battle and sometimes omit entirely the complex political maneuvers that brought him to power. Overall, it lends Napoleon a plotline that feels abrupt and oftentimes overly rushed.

The film's struggles with pacing also tie to one of its most unique elements. Unlike many conventional depictions that focus solely on Napoleon's militaristic ventures, Napoleon also centers on his volatile relationship with his wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais. Scott layers each beat of their courtship, marriage, and eventual divorce between key historical moments such as the campaign into Egypt and the Battle of Austerlitz. While this partially contributes to the film's haste, it also offers an alternate way to see Napoleon not as an immovable historical force but as a flawed man who—despite his ambition, rationality, and unrelenting devotion to greatness—was still romantic and human enough to love. Scott never justifies Napoleon's violence—his explosive temper is prominent, if not exaggerated, throughout the movie—but instead spins a character who is self-conflicted between the burden of his choices and his genuine care for Joséphine.

In that sense, Napoleon is not so much a study of its titular character as it is an exploration of his modern legacy. Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the world's most controversial figures, and the film reinforces his multifaceted characteristics in his bureaucratic, romantic, and martial journeys. However, it also reminds us that he was human and that outside of his nation-altering legacies, Napoleon lived and loved.