NAPOLEON | Sony Pictures Canada/Apple Original Films | November 22, 2023
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Ben Miles, Ludivine Sagnier, Tahar Rahim, Ian McNeice
Directed By: Ridley Scott
Napoleon is a spectacle-filled action epic that details the checkered rise and fall of the iconic French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, played by Oscar®-winner Joaquin Phoenix. Against a stunning backdrop of large-scale filmmaking orchestrated by legendary director Ridley Scott, the film captures Bonaparte's relentless journey to power through the prism of his addictive, volatile relationship with his one true love, Josephine, showcasing his visionary military and political tactics against some of the most dynamic practical battle sequences ever filmed.
REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
Napoleon is truly Ridley Scott’s Waterloo: a technical marvel that reminds audiences why he is one of the most prolific directors of historical epics, but a directorial effort that is tanked by Joaquin Phoenix’s puzzling, out of place and terrible performance as Napoleon that fails to come anywhere close to capturing one of the most notable figures in human history.
Director Ridley Scott has had a prolific career, delivering unforgettable films such as Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, and the Academy Award winning Gladiator, which is one the most notable historical epics in cinema. After reminding audiences how sensational of a director he is in the historical epic genre with 2021’s The Last Duel, it seemed like Scott tackling the life of Napoleon Bonaparte was certain to be great. Throw in Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby in the lead roles, it seemed like a sure fire hit and Academy Award nominee across multiple categories both above and below the line. However, the end result is a confounding motion picture experience that is unintentionally hilarious, void of any resemblance of the man that history remembers Napoleon as, ultimately wasting the exhilarating battle sequences and stunning design of the film that results in one of the most disappointing films of the year.
As expected with any Scott film, the film is exceptionally well put together. The costume and set design is immaculate, both fully immersing audiences in France in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. The battle sequences are exhilarating, delivering an adrenaline fueled rush that matches the military brilliance of the film’s titular character. The intensity and brutality of these sequences captures the epitome of the historical epic, combined with a grand scale and sweeping cinematography, results in some of the best battle sequences in recent memory. It’s a perfect display of Scott’s talents as a director in recreating historical times with a grand opulence on screen, fully immersing the audience in another time period.
Trying to encapsulate the entire life of Napoleon Bonaparte in a two hour and thirty eight minute film is a daunting task, and it does not surprise me at all that Napoleon does not fully accomplish that. The film races through Napoleon’s life starting with the Siege of Toulon, all the way up to his death in 1821, playing as a greatest hits and not telling the audience anything that they didn’t already know. There is no distinct story or theme that the film is playing with, instead it tries to condense the events of Napoleon’s life into the film with no sense of movement of time. There can be a jump of a few days or years in between scenes, which is lost on the audience unless there is a date stamp indicating it. Scenes start halfway through conversations allowing only half of the ideas to be present, while it feels like many important historical points are forgotten as the film quickly jumps large periods of time, making it feel like the story was lost on the cutting room floor. While the film makes note of how important Josephine was to Napoleon, she is sadly relegated to the background. I have no doubt that the four hour cut that will eventually debut on AppleTV+ will improve the story, giving a more fleshed out account of Napoleon’s life and giving Josephine the prominence she deserves. However, this is not the film’s downfall, and even if the four hour cut was released in theatres, it would still be a colossal misfire.
History remembers Napoleon Bonaparte as one of the most brilliant and cunning military minds of all time. A charismatic leader that united the people of France behind him as he rose to power and overtook the regime at the time in a coup d’état. While his military conquests at first were legendary, he lost his control and doomed the French army, becoming a tyrannical ruler who was exiled. And none of this is present in Phoenix’s performance. Phoenix is the equivalent of a wet rag in the film, giving an incredibly wooden performance that makes Napoleon look like a bumbling buffoon. There is no charismatic persuasion from him, instead playing Napoleon as a loner who throws child-like temper tantrums. It’s a disgrace to the legacy of Napoleon, but it also makes the film the unintentional comedy event of the year. His delivery of the lamb chop line left me flabbergasted (and hopefully this line was not in David Scarpa’s script and was improvised by Phoenix, otherwise I seriously question who approved that line), the sounds he makes towards Kirby while trying to ravish her reminded me of Cookie Monster, and the lack of any sort of personality or life from him was shocking. I honestly found myself second guessing that Phoenix had an Academy Award while watching him in this film.
For the most part, the supporting characters do not have more than one or two scenes, making it impossible to keep track of their historical importance or to leave any sort of impression on the audience. The only exception to this, and delivering what is unequivocally the best performance of the film is Kirby as Josephine Bonaparte, Napoleon’s one true love. While the screenplay banishes Josephine to the background, Kirby is radiant and makes the most of the material she is given to work with, stealing the film whenever she is on screen. Every scene she has, Kirby brings an emotionality to the film that provides one side of the Josephine- Napoleon romance, even if the chemistry is anything but reciprocated by Phoenix. With Scott wanting to examine Napoleon through his volatile relationship with Josephine, Kirby should have been more prominent in the story as she would have created a far more interesting film than the bloated, unfocused and painfully slow slog we were given. If anything, it confirms Kirby as an excellent actress who continues to deliver great work regardless of the size of the role she is cast in.
It still feels like I’m trapped in a nightmare, because it's hard to fathom that Ridley Scott’s take on Napoleon Bonaparte was a farcical epic after helming one of the most revered historical epics of all time, Gladiator, and one of the most underrated ones in recent memory, The Last Duel. History will always remember Napoleon Bonaparte as a towering figure, despite his short stature, but this movie reduces him to a joke. While the volume of history that that film has to cover and the limitations of a theatrical run time hinders Ridley Scott’s historical epic, which effects will not doubt be lessened with the four hour director’s cut, nothing can save the Napoleon from Joaquin Phoenix’s perplexing, comical and lifeless performance that reduces one of history’s greatest figures to a laughing stock with one of the worst performances in recent memory.