December 3, 2023

Joaquin Phoenix stars as the legendary French Emperor in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon. But is the film Magnifique or should it have been sent to the Guillotine?

Napoleon is director Ridley Scott’s latest historical epic. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as the legendary French Emperor alongside Vanessa Kirby as Josephine, the film is a lavish affair. It depicts his rise to power, and his life in general terms until his death on the remote island of Saint Helena in the Atlantic. It contains recreations of some of Napoleon’s famous battles, including the Battle Of Waterloo. Making a movie about possibly the most famous Frenchman of all time is no easy undertaking, as you would expect. But in Ridley Scott’s hands, it should be a slam dunk of a movie, right? The question is, is the film Magnifique or should it have been sent straight to the Guillotine?


The film depicts Napoleon’s rise to power through the lens of his addictive and volatile relationship with Empress Joséphine.


Madame’s and Monsour’s,  it is sad to report that the film, although lavish in scale, and featuring some terrific battle sequences, is far from Magnifique. Some French movie critics have described the film as ‘Merde.’ While I certainly wouldn’t say the film is bad (it most certainly isn’t), it is an average film from Ridley Scott. This isn’t his fault. The fault lies in the screenplay by David Scarpa. While the writer has tried to create something that will resonate with audiences, some of his choices leave a lot to be desired. Some of his dialogue is atrocious, even to the point of having unintentional laughs during some of the most dramatic points. There are some genuine laughs in his script, but the bad overrides the good.

The budget, estimated to be between $130-$200 million is, for the most part, all up there on the screen. The beauty of the French country (in reality mostly English countryside with the exception of Malta) comes through in spades. Lincoln Cathedral, which stood in for Notre Dame de Paris looks amazing. The look of the film, especially the battle scenes is superb. But the film is confused. Is it a historical epic? A biopic? Or a character study of the great Emperor himself? If you know the answer, please tell me as I’m as baffled as the film is.


The film’s biggest strength also happens to be one of its many weaknesses. Joaquin Phoenix. At times, the actor is sublime as Napoleon, taking the role and fitting it like a glove. But he also gives a disappointing performance for the most part. If I was to compare some of his performance, I’d have to say he was playing a poor version of his Oscar-winning performance as Arthur Fleck in Joker. While his performance in that film was an acting masterclass, here it is simply confusing. His approach doesn’t work. And that is a shame as he, during some of the dramatic scenes and all through the battle scenes, gives an excellent performance. During these sequences, we can believe he is the French Emperor. But these are few and far between.


Vanessa Kirby, an actress I admire, fairs better. But she too is let down by a screenplay that doesn’t tell the full story of Josephine. For the most part, she is tasked with playing the French Emperess as nothing but a whore, someone who doesn’t think twice about sleeping with other men behind Napoleon’s back. Ok, history records that Josephine really was this way. But it also records more of her life than just sleeping with half of her husband’s court. Vanessa Kirby is superb as Josephine but is let down by a script that uses her as eye candy for the most part and doesn’t let her reach her full acting potential. Which is criminal.


The battle scenes the film features are excellent. It has been reported that they are historically inaccurate. My question is…how do these people know? Were they there? Ignoring the naysayers is pretty easy in this respect. The sequences, especially the opening twenty minutes of the film, which are excellent, bring home the severity of the wars Napoleon fought. I can warn people of a certain nature that they will be upset with some of what they see. And horse lovers in particular will be distressed at some of what they will see. But, to me, they faithfully recreate what happened on the battlefields. We can believe that what we are seeing is what actually happened in reality.

My only complaint is with possibly the most famous battle of them all. The Battle Of Waterloo. The battle itself is truncated to a mere twenty-minute skirmish. It is brutal, bloody and unrelenting. But it feels as if the events between Napoleon and the Duke Of Wellington are simply skipped over. The battle deserves more respect than that. Of course, we don’t want the film to concentrate solely on the battle, as the 1970 film Waterloo did. But we do want to know more about the events than what we are shown. At times, it felt as if the film was simply copying Braveheart with its battle scenes. Considering I love that film, it isn’t a bad thing in the scheme of things. They are both highly impressive.


As I’ve already said, the script by David Scarpa is a source of the film’s problems. Don’t get me wrong, Scarpa does a valiant job in trying to bring the story to the screen. But some of his dialogue leaves a lot to be desired. Adding to that is the script’s skipping over most of Napoleon’s life, only concentrating on some of what he achieved during his 51 years of life. Those who want to know more about Napoleon and his life will be sorely disappointed. While we get the main highlights and get to see part of Napoleon’s emotions during his marriage to Josephine, his upset at their divorce, and his devastation at her early death from pneumonia, we don’t get the full picture.

By picking just a handful of points in his life and skipping over others, we don’t get to see who the man was. We get a highlights reel of his achievements in essence. We get a highlights reel of his life, his ups and his many downs. The fantastic German film Downfall not only looked at Adolph Hitler’s final days in his bunker but also gave us an in-depth look inside the man himself. We want that here with Napoleon. And we don’t get it. By the time the final credits roll, we know no more than we did before the film started.


By no means a bad, poor or terrible film, Napoleon isn’t the film we expected or wanted. It tells us nothing really of what we didn’t already know. Instead of being an in-depth look at the great Emperor himself, what made him tick, his motivations, and his mindset, we get a confused, disjointed film that doesn’t land any serious punches. While the battle scenes, most of the acting (especially from Vanessa Kirby, Mark Bonnar as Jean-Andoche Junot, Tahar Rahim as Paul Barras, and John Hollingworth as Marshal Ney) and some of what we see are excellent, it can’t make up for the film’s failings.

For something I thought would be a serious Oscar contender and a historical epic that would fit into the ranks of the best of the best from over the years, it is a letdown. Ridley Scott directs with his usual flair, quality, and keen eye for detail. It certainly feels like a Ridley Scott film throughout. But by the director’s high standards, it isn’t one of his best. It isn’t his fault, he’s let down by a lacklustre screenplay, some laughable dialogue, some weird and confusing acting, and a narrative that doesn’t engage fully.

The peasants may have been revolting. The film certainly isn’t. It just feels as if a longer cut that doesn’t skimp on the details would have been better. Instead, the film has suffered the same fate as Marie Antoinette. Both had unfortunate visits to the guillotine. For her it was fatal. For the film, it’s lost footage that would have made it so much better. And that is the nastiest cut of all.

Napoleon will be in cinemas around the world from Friday. It will then be released on Apple TV+ at a later date.





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