With the last few weeks of 2023 looking sparse in terms of big titles, Apple have spent big on a project they hope entices cinema audiences and Academy voters. Costing a reported $200m, Napoleon reunites Ridley Scott with Gladiator star Joaquin Phoenix, to tell the story of one of history’s Greatest generals.
Phoenix plays the title role of Napoleon Bonaparte, then a brilliant but unknown military tactician who proves himself during the French Revolution through significant victories on the battlefield. The film charts his rise to become the self-proclaimed Emperor of France, and the hubris that would eventually lead to his undoing. It also explores his relationship with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), his first wife and lifelong confidant.
The film is a tale of two creative forces. Behind the camera, Scott imposes himself with brash, bloody storytelling that maximises the brutality of warfare. The beheading of Marie Antoinette in the opening moments sets the tone for a film filled with every kind of death imaginable. It’s gory, but each of the many battle scenes are impressive spectacles, underlining Bonaparte’s brilliance.
As striking as it is, it makes for an uneven movie when paired with the film’s other creative whirlwind, Joaquin Phoenix. His Napoleon is a twitchy, insecure brute determined to put his stamp on the world. Swaggering around the battlefield like a 19th century Liam Gallagher, he contrasts this professional arrogance with a complex personal life. He and Kirby make an odd couple onscreen, sparring brilliantly but showing little connection that would suggest a lifelong bond. As with the battle scenes, the numerous animalistic sex scenes and bizarre lover’s chit chat lacks any kind of nuance.
The supporting actors add texture to the portrait, lurking in shadows and giving the film a Game of Thrones-like ruthlessness. Paul Rhys is impressive as Talleyrand, a French diplomat who pulls the political strings. There’s a delightful third act appearance from Rupert Everett as The Duke of Wellington, playing the British icon as an old master tired of Bonaparte’s “lack of good manners”.
The main player, other than Phoenix, is Kirby’s Josephine, a woman who both loves and despises the man whom history would bind her to. It’s a tough task to maintain restraint while Phoenix chews scenery, but The Crown actor is more than up to the task.
A lot has been made of the film playing fast and loose with points of historical fact, with historians pointing out the various in accuracies in the trailer, before being publicly told to “get a life” by Scott.
Of course, the historians are correct – Bonaparte never shot at the pyramids, and Marie Antoinette’s hair was cropped for her execution. Napoleon’s age also seems hard to pin down, while Phoenix’s Californian accent does seem odd in this setting. It’s all part of the package in a film that’s aiming for popcorn entertainment rather than academic clout. Those looking for a good time are unlikely to care much, although it may inspire a number of future YouTube videos circling the various factual gaffes.
There’s a lot to like about Napoleon, a film with as much bravado as the man it portrays. However, given the scope and talent involve, it’s disappointing to see something that feels so unbalanced.
This could have been Scott’s masterpiece, a film that embodies everything that has made him a Hollywood legend. Instead, it feels like a movie made to order, filled with a lot of noise but not enough care.