Sometimes you see a movie so great, from a filmmaker with an excellent filmography that ends up as incredible but doesn’t end up as that memorable. Napoleon is beautifully shot, excellently performed, wonderfully directed, and yet, walking out of the movie, it felt like it was too indulgent and lengthy. Performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby carry the film across a 2 1/2+ hour runtime. It’s just that across the whole movie, it never feels like Napoleon is doing more than just retelling his story.
There’s no real antagonist in the film, and rooting for Napoleon feels like a chore because he’s not a great guy. That leaves Josephine (Kirby) as the other person to root for. However, she gets tossed aside for a portion of the film, leaving it up to Phoenix to carry the heaviest of loads. The audience is left at points, watching something resembling more of a documentary than anything else. By no means is Napoleon bad, or boring, but it does feel a bit much at times.
Ridley Scott does, however, direct a MEAN battle scene. Napoleon is filled to the brim with calculated, meticulously planned battle scenes. From the start of his career all the way to Waterloo, Scott shows off how Napoleon’s (Phoenix) battle tactics and leadership change through conquest. The main thread throughout is bloodshed, and lots of it. It doesn’t necessarily show off horribly mangled bodies everywhere; but you can feel the concussion of cannons and rifle fire. Those scenes are breathtaking and where Napoleon shines through the brightest. It’s what makes the movie feel like the epics of old. A classic kind of filmmaking that has been lost with the advent of digital technology.
All About The Love Story
In between those battles of conquest and glory, you get to see the softer, more cerebral side of Napoleon Bonaparte. His love of his wife Josephine shines through everything else. The other thing that shines through are subtle tells about his insecurities. We all know about the phrase Napoleon complex. The movie shows it off in pretty inventive ways. Napoleon, during his conquest of Egypt, looks at a sarcophagus and has to bring a stool over. Throughout his story, he’s belittled, untrusted, and shown as cowardly and childish. There are also plenty of scenes where he’s shown as manipulative or petulant, involving Josephine, where she turns the tables on him. The dynamic between Kirby and Phoenix really sells this movie as more than a History Channel docustory.
We get smaller glimpses throughout at Napoleon’s other relationships with his friends, generals, and other bureaucrats, but they all pale compared to his relationship with Josephine. Some hilarious moments poke through in intended and sometimes unintended ways. When Napoleon is being his most childish, that’s when you see the true side of him. David Scarpa took a densely packed story and gave it some life with breaks between the densest of parts for either laughs, horrors of the battlefield, or a complicated love story.
Lengthy, Dense, And Don’t Complain About Historical Inaccuracy
Napoleon is long. That’s not a criticism, but something to help you get in the mindset to watch this movie. It’s a dense bit of material about one of the most historical and well-known leaders in human history. His story is fascinating, and to tell a fascinating story that spans monarchy, democracy, and then back to something resembling a dictatorship, you can’t really skip a lot of it. So, it might be a 2 1/2+ hour movie, but it didn’t feel like there was anything great to cut from the film. So you get what you get.
The only other strange thing about the film is that they just forego most people having regional or period accents. Czar Alexander has a Russian accent, some of the Brits have an accent, but then Phoenix and Kirby just roll with their native tongues. It’s a bit jarring when you first hear someone talk, but that feeling melts away as you get through the movie. The historical portion of the film shouldn’t be an issue, because the movie isn’t presenting itself as the most accurate portrayal of Napoleon. It’s aiming to show you the kind of man he was, while still remaining entertaining.
You get a full range with Napoleon. At points, it spikes your anxiety through the roof with guessing what he’ll do when he finds out Josephine has been cheating on him. It verges on horror during other points, particularly a battle involving a frozen lake with people going through the ice. There are triumphant moments, and the film’s ending is particularly poignant with how it comments on Napoleon’s whole life trying to gather as much power and influence as possible. Ultimately, he’s just an old man withering away on a rock with people commenting on his failure in Russia.
Napoleon is an excellent look into the life and mind of one of our most famous leaders. A man who was as cerebral as they come, but also as fragile as they come. Joaquin Phoenix puts forth a fantastic performance that should lead “Best of 2023” lists. However, Vanessa Kirby steals the show from him as the real star of Napoleon, Josephine.
Napoleon is for you if you’re in the mood for an old-school Hollywood-type epic film. It releases in theaters on November 22nd, 2023.
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