There’s a lot going on in Napoleon, to be sure. It’s a Ridley Scott film, after all, so it’s not going to lack for ambition. Now, that also means that he’s likely made a movie about twice the length that we’ll eventually see at a later date. Sometimes, that makes the initial final product feel like a shell of its full self. Here, however, it’s not a major factor. In fact, a shorter film would have been better. That being said, Scott’s take on the man and the execution of the scale are entertaining enough to merit a recommendation.
Napoleon is very much a four hour plus film cut down to a little over two and a half hours. In lesser hands, the movie would crumble and potentially be unwatchable. While you can definitely see the seems, there’s an undeniable entertainment factor here that keeps you rooted to your seat. Things are at their best during the relationship dynamics at the film’s core, as well as the battle scenes. The other elements? Not so much, aside from the surprisingly amusing moments throughout.
This epic is the story of Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix), the initially a promising young military officer who would eventually rule France. We see his military genius, as well as how the political winds of the time would sway in a manner that would end with him in power. The other element of his life focused on here is his relationship with Josephine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby). Smitten with her but obsessed with her inability to bear him a child, their marriage was combustable, but also full of passion.
We see Napoleon’s rise to the throne, alongside the major battles of his career, as well as his eventually downfall. Though never really getting under the man’s skin, it does lead to us experiencing some very funny moments (an argument with Josephine becomes a food fight), as well as some of Scott’s biggest war sequences to date. You’ve seen biopics like this before. The scale is just not quite this big, nor is there usually this sly bit of humor within.
Joaquin Phoenix is at his best when being funny here. There isn’t much charisma to his military commander, but when he’s stamping his foot and making noises to tell his wife he wants to have sex, he’s a hoot. This does seem to be an intentional choice, making Phoenix a better fit than expected for this particular telling of the tale. Leaning in to camp isn’t what I expected, but it’s what I wanted, go figure. Vanessa Kirby is just as intense as Phoenix, but without as much of the fun. She’s good, but there’s a bit less for her to do. That being said, they do have chemistry together, helping you to buy their love story. The large supporting cast includes the likes of Rupert Everett, Tahar Rahim, Ludivine Sagnier, and more, but Kirby and Phoenix are the centerpieces.
Ridley Scott makes sure that this is a technical marvel. The screenplay by David Scarpa takes many a liberty with the historical record, but it never keeps you from being invested. Scott’s direction of the battles is as good as ever. Along with Dariusz Wolski‘s cinematography, the intensity is on full display. Pacing wise, this is rather slack and the seams of the edit are showing, but the battle scenes, as well as the funniest moments, are too good to ignore.
Napoleon chronicles three decades of the man’s life, ending in his exile and death. The best bits are the battles, as well as the humor injected by Phoenix. Is this a major Oscar juggernaut? No, probably not. Is it the sort of big misfire that some were expecting? No, it’s not that, either. So, the end result is something in between. Frankly, it means that Scott continues to be in an interesting period of his career, and I’m completely fine with that. Working with Apple, who produced the film (it will be released in theaters on November 22nd in partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment, before streaming on Apple TV+), has given him the means to continue trying things. Huzzah for that.