Few filmmakers have mastered the historic epic as well as Sir Ridley Scott has, even if he has gone back to the science-fiction well almost as much. 2000’s Gladiator is still considered Scott’s magnum opus when it comes to battle epics, winning five Oscars, including Best Picture, but Scott has gone back into history numerous times since then, as recently as 2021’s The Last Duel.
Napoleon is a little more straight-forward as a linear biopic about the French conqueror-turned-emperor who came to prominence in the late 18th Century and had a meteoric rise over the next 23 years. Napoleon Bonaparte is played by Joaquin Phoenix – who first came to attention with his Oscar-nominated supporting role in Gladiator. We first meet him just as revolution abounds in France in 1793, as he watches the former queen Marie Antoinette being beheaded. Soon afterwards, he meets Vanessa Kirby’s Josephine, and he’s immediately smitten, putting him into a situation where he needs to balance his wartime efforts with spending time with his new lady love.
Although there are scenes in Napoleon that are absolutely jaw-dropping, as big and bold as any film epic going back to Lawrence of Arabia, it’s also a fairly traditional biopic where event are told in linear chronological order with appropriate titles specifying dates and locations. Some might prefer this sort of storytelling over what Christopher Nolan did in Oppenheimer, but it makes it much harder to maintain interest, especially during the scenes between Napoleon and Josephine. This relationship is not depicted as an epic love story, as much as it’s a relationship full of toxicity, mostly coming from the constantly-jealous Napoleon. In other words, Napoleon is just the latest entry in 2023’s non-stop display of toxic masculinity where you’ll find yourself siding with women.
Not being a historian and with little specific knowledge about Napoleon history, it’s hard to tell how historically-accurate screenwriter David Carpa got in terms of the relationship between Napoleon and Josephine, and how that fit into his better-documented wartime achievements. The latter tend to be the highlight of the film, as we learn how Napoleon’s mind works in terms of strategy, leading to terrific scenes like his expedition to Egypt – cut short when he learns Josephine may have taken another suitor – and a brutal battle sequence where retreating troops fall through the ice as Napoleon offers little quarter.
The first half of the film is narrated by Phoenix’s drowsy voice, and in general, Phoenix’s performance just doesn’t explode off the screen as with other performances we’ve seen from the Oscar-winning actor. Kirby gives a much stronger performance, one well-deserving of her earning a second Oscar nomination, although it would be in what is becoming an increasingly tough supporting actress category. Despite the movie mostly being about their characters – a few others come in and out but few with any major consequence or relative – the toxicity of his treatment of his wife tend to be quite uncomfortable to watch, and those scenes also tend to drag things down, both in terms of tone and pace.
Considering how much Napoleon detests Britain – leading to a direct confrontation at Waterloo where Napoleon’s forces are overwhelmed by Britain’s alliances – it does make one wonder why a British filmmaker like Scott might have wanted to make this movie, but it’s clearly a passion project film, one that keeps all its presumably-large budget on the screen. The battle sequences are brutal and quite graphic, the combination of hundreds (if not thousands) of extras enhanced by fluid visual effects.
You can’t make a movie like Napoleon without some of the top crafts people in the business and Scott has much of his same team from his past few movies – DP Dariusz Wolski and Costume Designer Janty Yates doing particularly stunning work. It’s nye impossible to ignore the impressive work by Production Designer Arthur Max, whose three Oscar nominations were for Scott projects (including Gladiator). The work by these three are particularly important for a film that is constantly wowing the viewer with what they offer onscreen.
For most of its 96 years, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would fall over themselves to reward a film like Napoleon, just based on how great it looks and with so many terrific crafts on display. It is surely one of Scott’s finest achievements as a director with so many scenes that will leave people with their jaws again, and yet, it feels like such an old school historic epic it may have missed its time. Even so, it should still fare decently at the box office with one or two potential Oscar nominations, although it would have to face many stronger movies in already jam-packed categories.
It’s impossible not to admire what Ridley Scott has achieved with Napoleon, a visually-stunning old school cinematic epic with unbelievably majestic battle sequences. Even so, it’s a movie that’s frequently held back by Phoenix’s notably erratic performance, with uncomfortably awkward moments between him and Kirby that often make the movie harder to palate.
Awards Potential: Costumes, Vanessa Kirby, Cinematography
Box Office Potential: $60 to 80 million domestic, but far more overseas
Overall Score: B
Napoleon will be released in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, November 22.
Studio: Apple Studios/Sony
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Ludivine Sagnier, Rupert Everett, Mark Bonnar, Ben Miles
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: David Scarpa
Producers: Mark Huffam, Kevin J. Walsh, Ridley Scott, Winston Azzopardi
DP: Dariusz Wolski
Production Design: Arthur Max
Costume Design: Janty Yates, David Crossman
Editor: Claire Simpson, Sam Restivo
Score by: Martin Phipps