Napoleon movie review: Fantastic action with an undercooked script


Ridley Scott has been making films for over fifty years, capturing audiences with in every genre. One, in particular, has proven fruitful for the director, and that is historical dramas. Whether it’s Academy Award-winning Gladiator, the 2005 Kingdom of Heaven, or his most recent turn in the genre, The Last Duel, Scott has found success within the historical drama space. He returns to the genre with his latest film, Napoleon.

Napoleon is based on the true story of Napoleon Bonaparte, which follows the rise of the French leader while also honing in on his relationship with Empress Josephine. Within minutes of the beginning of the film, you watch a woman dragged to a guillotine to have her head cut off. After it happens, a man waves it in the air like a trophy as Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) watches off in the distance. Unhappy with the style of dictatorship the city was facing, an uproar of protests leads to a changing of the guard.

Vanessa Kirby is the heart and soul of Ridley Scott’s Napoleon

We watch a young Napoleon’s rapid rise within the military happen because he commanded the French army to defeat one of their biggest foes, Austria. The more he conquered, the more power and respect Napoleon received from his peers. Much like his previous ventures in war-style films, Scott perfectly captured the vicious side of the war with blood and guts in epic fashion. Whether up close in the trenches or off in the distance, you felt like you were in the middle of each of these battles.

In this rise of Napoleon, we meet Empress Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), with whom Napoleon becomes quite smitten. Their foundation brings out this child-like personality within him, which was a side of him that you didn’t see on the battlefield. The two quickly get married and attempt to start having kids. With Napoleon caught up in the war and gone for so long, Empress had her eyes on a new man. Shortly after their new love affair, Napoleon found out amid the war and returned to confront his wife.

When Empress Joséphine is on your screen, you almost always sit up in your seat because you are captivated by the essence of her presence. Empress was equal parts Napoleon’s wife and a motherly figure to him. They had playful banter with one another, but even when Napoleon began to be serious, she wouldn’t pay any mind to it by mocking what he was saying. Vanessa Kirby is the heart and soul of this film, and it comes and goes as she does throughout.

When Empress disappears from the film, it loses most of its steam, causing the film to be completely disjointed. When Napoleon is on-screen yearning for Empress, you feel it because you miss her presence just as much as he did. As the film shifted to its third act, it became an ego-driven revenge movie as Napoleon didn’t want to sit on the sidelines anymore as someone else ran his army and bedded his ex-wife.

For some reason, David Scarpa’s script never elaborated or expanded upon Napoleon’s want for anything (other than the Empress). Maybe the disjointed aspect is how we are supposed to see Napoleon’s mind, which is fine, but the lack of explanation or attention to detail about the little things he does is unfulfilling. Moments when we see knee-jerk reactions or how he paused in such pivotal moments mid-war didn’t land because we didn’t understand why.

Scott will wow those who love his larger-than-life war sequences mixed with fantastic sound design. He also effortlessly brings to life the 1800s with the collaborative effort of costume designer April Napier and production designer Sam Lisenco. However, Joaquin Phoenix has been delivering brilliant performances for decades, but within the role of Napoleon, he leans more into playing a version of himself than the French military leader. His counterpart Vanessa Kirby is a saving grace as her stock rises. Although the film’s run time and disjointed script hinder the overall experience, Scott fans will be enamored by his signature directing beats.

Napoleon hits theaters on Nov. 22, 2023.

dark. Next. Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan give transcendent performances in Maestro