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Review: Napoleon (2023)

Napoleon (2023)

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Premise: A biographical drama about Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) and his rise to power in nineteenth century France.

What Works: 2023’s Napoleon comes from filmmaker Ridley Scott whose filmography includes several impressive sword and shield films such as Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and The Last Duel. Those movies were distinguished by a broad scale and impressive production values mixed with intimate stories of characters trying to maintain their integrity in the midst of epoch defining events. Napoleon does much the same thing with Scott’s characteristic style and craftsmanship. The production design is remarkable. The nineteenth century is recreated with great detail; the costumes and sets look organic and lived-in and the scenes of warfare are brutal. Napolean incudes some very large battle scenes and the filmmakers manage the action and use visual cues to avoid expository dialogue. There is an impressive proportion between the scale and the storytelling. The movie is big but the characters don’t get lost in the canvas. In fact, the film is less interested in the epic scale and much more invested in the intimate relationship between Napoleon and his wife Josephine. Napoleon is a master military tactician but with her he’s vulnerable while Josephine is indifferent, at least at first, and together they have a complicated relationship. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent as Napoleon. He plays the character as socially awkward and he’s believable as a battlefield commander but with a deficit in relating to others. Vanessa Kirby is also terrific as Josephine. She is a survivor of the French Revolution and the trauma of her experience simmers just underneath Kirby’s performance. As a historical biopic about a legendary leader, Napoleon subverts some of the expectations of this genre and the film is distinguished by a subtle self-awareness. These kinds of movies often dramatize the great man theory but Napoleon undermines it. It does that through humor—Napoleon is frequently deliberately funny—but also by subtly drawing attention to the fact that so many people died to assuage this man’s ego.

What Doesn’t: The accents of Napoleon are all over the place. Joaquin Phoenix speaks in his American accent while other actors perform with a British accent and some speak with a generic Transatlantic inflection. It’s never too distracting but with so much attention paid to the historical detail it is odd that this element is allowed to slide. The narrative of Napoleon consists of two parts: the love story and the political and military campaigns. The two parts don’t quite fit together. The pacing is sometimes choppy and despite running 158 minutes Napoleon feels rushed. The political story especially suffers. The film doesn’t develop the idea of Napoleon as a politician and there isn’t much tension or drama to this aspect of the story. Napolean’s second marriage and his children are briefly mentioned and then dropped from the narrative.

Bottom Line: Napoleon’s storytelling is a bit clunky but the production design and the performances are excellent. It’s been reported that Ridley Scott has created a four hour version of Napoleon that will be released for home viewing at a later date. That cut might fix some of the flaws of the theatrical version.

Episode: #975 (December 3, 2023)