BY BECCA JOHNSON NOVEMBER 27, 2023
After 2021's The Last Duel and the promise of a Gladiator sequel in the near future, many class Ridley Scott as the only director 'still making movies like this'. Scott's newest feature is a historical epic following the life of emperor and military commander Napoleon Bonaparte. By covering his love life in as great detail as his life on the battlefield, we get an in-depth if occasionally historically inaccurate look at the person behind the stories. With terrific performances and incredibly well-shot battle sequences, Napoleon is a good, competently made feature, but it's messy plot and obvious gaps in the narrative stop it from being great.
An epic that details the checkered rise and fall of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his relentless journey to power through the prism of his addictive, volatile relationship with his wife, Josephine.
The talent of Joaquin Phoenix is pretty much a given by this point, but he does shine as Napoleon. It's a different depiction than we'd usually see in a historical biopic, but Phoenix plays it his way, and it undeniably works. The performance, paired with the occasionally off-kilter script, gives Bonaparte a lot of edge – it's quite fun. However, stealing the show entirely is Vanessa Kirby in her role as Josephine, Napoleon's wife. Kirby gives her best performance to date, often stealing the show from Phoenix; her incredible depiction is at the heart of the film. She balances the complex emotions of the character well, effortlessly switching between emotional and lovestruck to unpredictable and capricious. The pair work well together and have very tangible chemistry, even when the relationship is at it's most toxic. The supporting cast are also excellent, featuring the likes of Rupert Everett as the Duke of Wellington, Tahar Rahim as Paul Barras and Ben Miles as Coulancourt.
The movies best feature is undoubtedly it's visuals and cinematography. When it comes to film-making, Scott is no amateur, and Napoleon shows him doing what he does best. The battle sequences are exciting, entertaining and well shot, and they're placed strategically throughout the entire film to aid the run-time. Fittingly, Napoleon's greatest victory at Austerlitz is the movie's greatest sequence, as it cleverly uses it's frozen landscape to it's advantage. Every set-piece is beautifully crafted, every costume is gorgeous and the camerawork is second to none. It feels as epic as it should, particularly during those highly anticipated battle scenes.
Surprisingly, Napoleon's script focuses very heavily on the romance between Bonaparte and Josephine, showing them at their best and their worst, and giving real insight into her story as well as his. Not only is this a great choice as it allows their fantastic performances and chemistry to shine, but it gives a large amount of depth to the story and adds stakes where we don't expect them. The moments focussing on their relationship and it's inevitable breakdown are often as engaging as the more action-packed scenes, and a great balance of both are given. The other surprise inside this gigantic script is the humour; there's some really nice, light laugh-out-loud moments filtered throughout that elevate some of the less interesting sections.
Unfortunately, anything outside of the battles and the romance is where the movie falters. Clocking in at approximately 2.5 hours, it does occasionally lag, and there's plenty of dialogue heavy scenes in here that are likely to lose many viewers. As well as this, the story itself is all over the place. Some sequences are dragged out for too long whereas other larger moments are rushed through, making it feel choppy and inconsistent. It often feels as though plenty of scenes were left on the cutting room floor, as it has noticeable gaps in it's narrative that would have been nice to see filled in. It obviously has a big task in telling the story of an individual with a complex life, but the reception of the lengthier movies of the year including Oppenheimer and The Killers of the Flower Moon prove that audiences aren't afraid of long flicks where a cohesive and thorough story is present. Maybe an extra half-an-hour in this case would've added more good than harm, as it suffers from feeling incomplete and messy.
Napoleon is a great historical epic from acclaimed director Ridley Scott, and the talent in front of the camera from Phoenix, Kirby and the whole cast makes it worth a viewing. The battle scenes are as grand as they should be, and the romance and characters are explored with good development. However, the choppy story-line and meandering run-time stop it from reaching true greatness and appealing to the masses. For history buffs, it may take too many liberties to be fully enjoyed, but the average viewer will likely have some fun with it's large story, surprising humour and gorgeous visuals.