In the late 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte rises to power, leading military campaigns across Europe and beyond. Cementing his position of power in France and romancing Josephine in his attempts to produce an heir, he continues to crusade, forming alliances with other nations and targeting the threat of England. But will his overly ambitious nature lead to his downfall?
Napoleon Bonaparte has long been a famous historical figure depicted in cinema. From Abel Gance’s silent 1927 epic starring Albert Dieudonne to an aborted project from Stanley Kubrick that never got made, to more comedic depictions in movies like TIME BANDITS and BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, odds are you’ve seen the Corsican conqueror depicted on the big screen in some shape or form. It wouldn’t be Oscar season without a nomination-worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix, and in portraying France’s most infamous conqueror, he takes on one of his biggest and most demanding roles. NAPOLEON for the most part is a success with Phoenix’s performance, beautiful set and costume design, and a sprawling epic feel throughout its duration that juggles battle scenes and drama exceptionally well, all in the capable hands of one of cinema’s greatest directors – Ridley Scott.
Ridley Scott has one of the most impressive filmographies in history. From classic science fiction works like ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER to the sword-and-sandal epic GLADIATOR (which also starred Joaquin Phoenix), and to more recent triumphs like ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, HOUSE OF GUCCI, and THE LAST DUEL, he’s the proverbial Energizer Bunny of the film world who keeps going and going, never letting up and continuing to tackle a wide variety of filmic subjects. NAPOLEON is one of his most ambitious epics yet. There’s nothing small about this movie, from its period-accurate sets and to battle scenes that rival epics from the days of old. NAPOLEON is right at home, whether it’s a frosty battlefield, the deserted ruins of a Russian city, or a lavish costume ball. The audio is nearly as impressive as the video, with a lavish score and sung pieces that don’t feel out of place for the time period. Visually, it’s easily one of the most impressive films of recent years, and it makes solid enough use of its running time. The movie also doesn’t hold back when it comes to battlefield violence or intimacy, earning its R rating.
Of course, no discussion of NAPOLEON would be complete without mentioning its leading man – Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix is in front of the camera what Scott is behind it; the man willing to rise to any role and pull it off exceptionally well. From Johnny Cash to the Joker, to now playing one of history’s most infamous figures, it seems like it wouldn’t be Oscar season without a Phoenix performance. His portrayal here is certainly worthy, showing Mr. Bonaparte’s ambition on the battlefield, as well as his struggles in society and even a certain vulnerability. Phoenix portrays the character as strong, but isn’t afraid to show his weaknesses and insecurities, leading to one of the best cinematic performances of the year from any actor. It will be absolutely criminal if the Academy overlooks his role here. While the supporting cast is impressive, including Vanessa Kirby’s portrayal of Josephine, who beautifully romances and clashes with the French Emperor, it’s Mr. Phoenix’s movie from beginning to end.
Fortunately, the shortcomings of the film are minor. The Napoleon and Josephine love story could’ve used some more on-screen development, though this will apparently be addressed in a forthcoming four-and-a-half hour director’s cut version that will be released on Apple TV+ following the movie’s run in theaters; that said, both persons still do a good job with the time allotted to them. The film is entirely in the English language aside from the occasional subtitled bit of dialogue; criticisms regarding accents (or in some cases, lack thereof) has been a common point addressed by fellow critics who attended the same screenings as me. This is a tough subject to address; should a historical movie be presented in the language in which it originally took place, or English for ease of access for audiences? And if choosing the latter, what should the policy on accents be? Likewise, even at a running time approaching three hours for its theatrical exhibitions, it’s still far too much story to tell and too many plot points to pack in; seeing some of Bonaparte’s earlier life before his rise to military success and infamy may have been a good idea. Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic did this expertly, even featuring scenes of the future Emperor as a young boy, developing his military mindset back then. Still, these are negligible weaknesses. The film is fantastic.
NAPOLEON may very well be the most ambitious film to date for director Ridley Scott and actor Joaquin Phoenix. The world is desperate for a return to the cinematic epics from the days of old, and NAPOLEON mostly succeeds in its excess. The production values throughout on both sides of the camera are Oscar worthy, and it’s easily one of the best films of the year despite very minor shortcomings. Very highly recommended!