By all accounts, Napoleon Bonaparte was as controversial a figure as he was a ridiculous one. Fittingly, it speaks to the awkward nature of what I have to offer for this review. Ridley Scott’s theatrical release of Napoleon is good, though not great. Yet I feel compelled to reserve final opinions on this film until I see the full director’s cut that will be released on Apple TV+ following this movie’s theatrical run. Now, is that fair? Well, I am here to deliver a review of this current version of Napoleon, so there is still work to be done, but much like how to best view Napoleon’s fame and infamy, nothing is ever easy.
A few certainties I can appreciate about Ridley Scott’s approach to historical epics are the choices to narrow the time frame and subvert typical trends of these sorts of films (i.e., accents, which I’ll return to shortly). Napoleon focuses on the rise and fall of the French Emperor, specifically his rise to prominence during the French Revolution up to his defeat at Waterloo and subsequent exile to Saint Helena. During this time, we also witness Napoleon’s complex relationship with his wife, Joséphine.
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Joaquin Phoenix takes on the role of Napoleon, and not only does it feel like a natural fit, but the film allows the actor to bring an energy fitting for the character, which does not include a French accent that would, if anything, serve as a distraction. Yes, much like The Last Duel, Ridley Scott eschewed much of the pomp and circumstance that arrives with typical cinematic epics in favor of the focus on the naturalism of the actors in the moment (never mind how little sense it makes to me that characters not speaking the language of the land would for some reason still have accents).
Given the role presented, Phoenix brings his typical brooding self that suggests a very lived-in form of this man. With that in mind, given the persona of Napoleon, a man with evident skill on the battlefield, yet one also distracted by his own ego and insecurities, his threatening nature can often be upset by bouts of goofiness. Written by David Scarpa and undoubtedly informed by Scott’s dry sense of humor, Napoleon is not above making its title character look foolish when it can. Fortunately, that doesn’t amount to jokes about his height (which is a myth, anyway). Instead, the man’s fiery temper, distrust of those around him, and marriage woes all inform the escalating tension that can lead to either violence or humor.
Vanessa Kirby stars as Joséphine, and this is honestly the more impressive performance. Depicted as a survivor who does what she must to keep up means for her and her children from a previous marriage, Kirby’s strengths extend to how she goes toe to toe with Phoenix in scenes that demand awkward sexual tension (he needs an heir and it doesn’t come easily), as well as ones leaning into how much control this woman has over the man so obsessed with controlling France. There are many aspects to Joséphine’s legacy regarding her time as Empress. For a film that clearly has other elements it needs to spend time on, there’s a true strength to this character that speaks to what an impact she had on Napolean and what it all means for the two of them to have been together.
Outside these two, an assortment of character actors fill in as necessary. Tahar Rahim, Rupert Everett, Ian McNeice, Ludivine Sagnier, Matthew Needham, Ben Miles, and others effectively serve as relatives, politicians, and rivals to France’s Emperor. While not a showcase for an ensemble crew (the film is even sure to throw up names on the screen to at least provide some context), it’s more about having an established set of characters to allow for a familiar enough understanding of who matters in the various stages of Napoleon’s military and political career. Plus, having other characters bear witness to the behavior of Napoleon, let alone support him in some instances, only adds to the sort of entertainment value to take away from someone that wades between childish to stubborn to tyrannical (all qualities that are oddly similar at times).
True to form, Ridley Scott has mounted a gorgeous and brutal epic when considering the battle sequences on display. Finding ways to differentiate the various successes and defeats during Napoleon’s time, Scott, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, and the hundreds of crew members working to bring these sequences to life do fantastic work here. An early clash, set at night, finds our protagonist wading through carnage while enacting a strategic movement. Later on, a snow-set battle allows for a dynamite use of cannons and ice to deliver a sequence unlike anything I’ve seen on that scale. This is Scott’s 7th or 8th historical epic, and while it may be old hat for him to some extent, seeing the 85-year-old filmmaker find new angles to come at these sorts of scenes is plenty exciting.
Adding to this is how Napoleon’s personal affairs factor into these strategic choices. Fueled by passion so much of the time, regardless of how closely this depiction resembles how the man actually behaved or made choices, it’s fascinating to watch the throughline one can draw between the activities going on in different areas of his life. With that in mind, it is also a way in which the film suffers.
As noted, while this film is not short at 157 minutes, Scott has made it clear that he’s currently working on a fuller 4 ½ hour cut of the film. Daunting as that may sound to some, I can see why that would feel necessary if one wants to get the whole experience. Moreso than some of his other features (including one of his true masterworks, Kingdom of Heaven, the Crusades epic famously cut down for its theatrical release, only to find plenty of love following the release of the director’s cut), Napoleon very clearly feels like a film primed to say a lot more than it does in its current form. I can only speculate as to what’s missing, but political motivations, more scenes with Joséphine, and various other aspects concerning the man’s shifting ideals certainly make up what’s not currently here. All of this is why I feel this review deserves an asterisk, as I am patiently awaiting more of what already serves as a good thing.
Still, it’s not as though there’s little value to be found in this brutal, dramatic, and occasionally quite funny epic. Scott is too good of a filmmaker not to at least have something interesting on his hands. With Napoleon, granted one must be ready for a long historical drama, there are no real efforts to deliver the stodgy Oscar bait that could easily arise from this sort of material. Instead, there’s a well-acted feature that balances its war footage with some political intrigue and an intense romantic relationship, speaking so much to what this absurd man did during his reign over France. This film doesn’t quite conquer all, but it stages an effective enough offensive.