Review | Napoleon | 2023

There are few modern filmmakers as uniquely adept at filming large scale battle scenes as Ridley Scott. 

From Gladiator to Black Hawk Down to Kingdom of Heaven to The Last Duel, Scott's eye for sweeping historical drama has earned him both critical acclaim and commercial success since his very first film, The Duellists, was released in 1977. So it would seem that Napoleon, a sprawling retelling of the life of the infamous French general and emperor, would be something that fits squarely within his wheelhouse. And it does, to some extent - but it also feels as though this time Scott has bitten off more than he can chew.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as the eponymous ruler of France, tracing his career from an eager Corsican officer during the French Revolution to his death in exile in 1821. Scott's film traces his rise to power and his myriad military victories, along with his tumultuous relationship with his beloved wife, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), whom he divorced in 1810 due to her inability to conceive, though he remained devoted to her for the rest of his life. 

The film certainly hits the highlights of Napoleon's career, but at a certain point it just feels like it's lurching from battle to battle without providing much connective tissues to provide much human interest or historical context for what we're seeing. Phoenix's Napoleon is as petulant and needy off the battlefield as he is brilliant on it, which is a great gag and a nice change of pace for the "biopic of the Great Man" tropes that the film certainly could have fallen into. He's a man who just couldn't stop fighting whose hubris becomes his ultimate undoing. But we never quite escape the feeling that we're watching a live action rendering of the Wikipedia article on Napoleon rather than a fully fleshed out film. 

Those who go in knowing very little about Napoleon Bonaparte are unlikely to emerge from Napoleon feeling as if they know more about him than when they went in. It has some tremendous set pieces (the icy Battle of Austerlitz is a truly breathtaking spectacle), and Phoenix is tremendous in the title role, but it nevertheless feels truncated, even at more than two and a half hours long. Scott reportedly has a 4 hour directors cut planned for release exclusively on AppleTV+, and while the film's runtime already feels bloated due it to its unwieldy pacing, perhaps a longer cut is what's needed to really let this story breathe. As it stands, it's a deeply flawed work filled with flashes of brilliance surrounded by poorly paced and half baked connective tissue that never really allows its stronger impulses to blossom. One hopes that a director's cut will bring a less hackneyed vision to the screen in 2024. 

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

NAPOLEON | Directed by Ridley Scott | Stars Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Ben Miles, John Hollingworth, Youssef Kerkour, Davide Tucci, Edouard Philipponnat, Paul Rhys, Matthew Needham, Jannis Niew√∂hner, Ludivine Sagnier, Rupert Everett | Rated R for strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and brief language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.


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