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A cinematic historical epic that follows the rapid rise and tragic demise of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix), the military genius whose brilliance is marred by his ravenous ambition and tortured relationship with the love of his life, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby).
Legendary director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Alien, Blade Runner) and Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) reunite after more than 20 years in Napoleon, which the former describes as a ‘toboggan ride’ of a filmmaking experience. Oscar nominee Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman) plays the emperor’s enigmatic wife Josephine.
A lush, sprawling, visually brilliant yet tonally uneven historical drama made for the big screen, Napoleon chronicles the legendary general’s tactical mastery and strategic foresight while revealing how his strengths were undercut by his insatiable lust for power and propensity for unhealthy relationships.
The two-and-a-half-hour film highlights two decades (1790-1810) of the emperor’s meteoric ascension to power and the catastrophic collapse of his empire. Gorgeously shot, Napoleon boasts ultra-complicated battle sequences that are precisely staged while relying on very few visual effects.
One of the most striking accomplishments of the film is that throughout the elaborate fight scenes, you can actually tell what’s happening, which side is winning, and how they are executing their strategy. Pivotal battles in history are captured and precisely staged, from the Siege of Toulon and the Battle of Austerlitz to Napoleon’s clash with the Duke of Wellington and General Von Blucher at Waterloo.
Realism is what motivated the iconic director Scott to bring Napoleon Bonaparte’s controversial legacy to life. “It’s all real,” Ridley explains in an interview with Y.M. Cinema. When you are using CGI and AI, the audience can tell it is fake. All of this is real shooting.”
That’s not to say that the film is entirely historically accurate. The depiction of Marie Antoinette’s execution and Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt take certain liberties, and a significant part of Napoleon’s story is missing, including any insights into his childhood or the psychological roots of what drove him in his relentless pursuit of power.
Joaquin Phoenix compensates for the missing pieces in a fascinating performance. His thorny and dare I say sassy portrayal of the brilliant yet petulant emperor is delightful to watch. This is Phoenix’s second collaboration with Scott after working together in the Oscar-winning historical epic ‘Gladiator’ more than two decades ago. And from the looks of it, they haven’t missed a beat.
Scaling a Legend Down to Size
With its larger-than-life scale, terrific cast, and awe-inspiring fight scenes, it’s quite astonishing that a rather unassuming character (not found on the battlefield) can stand out. But Vanessa Kirby is mesmerizing as Empress Josephine. She disappears into the role as Napoleon’s lover and tormentor, effortlessly stealing every scene she’s in. Kirby may not be the driving force behind Napoleon’s ferocious battle sequences, but she is a force to be reckoned with. Her portrayal of Josephine serves as a foil for Napoleon’s uncouth and over-the-top personality, and she brings him down to earth by constantly triggering/highlighting his insecurities. A certified femme fatale, Josephine is happiest when she’s in control. Their power dynamic is so lopsided that Napoleon spends the entire film wondering what it’s going to take to impress and satisfy the love of his life.
A Cautionary Tale for our Times
Like many other historical biopics that came before it, Napoleon not only immerses us into a riveting story, it leaves us with lessons amidst the carnage and spectacle. In its entirety, the movie is a cautionary tale of the dangers of unchecked ambition, and a reminder of the costs when one man’s gifts are used to quench his thirst for power. In Napoleon, violence never solves anything; it only leads to more misery and bloodshed. And greatness cannot be achieved through subjugation. It can only be attained through diplomacy, justice, and unity.
On a more human scale, we’re left to see that you will never be good enough for the wrong person, even if you have conquered the whole world!
As the saying goes, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Napoleon may have historical inaccuracies and feel emotionally distant, but its lessons are on point.
A stunning, tactically proficient, and surprisingly funny biopic, Napoleon is a cinematic tour de force: a visual masterclass in humanity and all its ills.
Though uneven and at times as emotionally inept as the man himself, the film always comes alive on the battlefield with its staggeringly elaborate action sequences, which are as expansive as they are visceral.
History buffs, friends, and family who love period dramas or are intrigued by controversial political figures. It will also appeal to anyone who loves masterfully choreographed battle scenes.
Napoleon had its world premiere at Salle Pleyel in Paris on November 14, 2023, and though early reviews were mostly positive, French historian and Napoleon Bonaparte biographer Patrice Gueniffey denounced the film as “very anti-French and very pro-British.” Director Ridley Scott brushed off the criticism and told the BBC that the French don’t even like themselves. “The audience that I showed it to in Paris, they loved it,” he added.
Whether coincidence or artistic choice, the film failed to mention that Napoleon once supported a Jewish homeland in Palestine in 1799, as Airmail explains.
Scott announced that there will be a four-and-a-half-hour director’s cut of Napoleon that is scheduled to stream through Apple TV+ at a later date. This extended version might provide more context and depth to Napoleon’s story, perhaps tie up some loose ends, or even mention some of his notable declarations such as his support of a Jewish State in Palestine.
Where to watch it: In theaters only