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Review: ‘Napoleon’ is a Historical Epic Fighting a Losing Battle

November 21, 2023Ben MK

One of history's most famous conquerors, Napoleon Bonaparte has been the subject of numerous academic texts, and, of course, been portrayed and parodied in many a film and television production. Even if you don't know anything about Napoleon, chances are you've seen him depicted in movies like Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Waterloo or the 1927 silent film, Napoléon. But with Napoleon, director Ridley Scott is setting out to create the ultimate cinematic portrait of the legendary general — even if that means sacrificing historical fact for some highly questionable, speculative fiction.

The year is 1793, and France is in the midst of a tumultuous revolution destined to change the future of the country forever. With King Louis XVI having been executed mere months earlier, the beheading of his widow, Marie Antoinette, is a shocking turn of events that heralds the end of the French monarchy, setting the stage for the formation of the First Republic. It's a chaotic time that has many invested parties on both sides watching with the utmost intent. And among them is a 24-year-old Corsican soldier by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix), who seeks to use the current state of affairs to elevate his own military status. Tasked by the Governor of France with leading an all-out assault against the British to take back what was once France's territory, Napoleon's strategic ingenuity and outright ambition help him rise up among the ranks of the French army. However, it's not until he meets his soon-to-be wife, 32-year-old mother of two Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby), did the future Emperor of France discover his true purpose, all but sealing his fate in the process.

Married in 1804, Napoleon and Joséphine prove to be quite the power couple. Still, despite the affection they share for one another, their relationship isn't without its ups and downs. With Napoleon busy leading France's armies into various battles, Joséphine is left free to explore her many sexual indiscretions, a betrayal which causes Napoleon to retaliate with his own brand of vengeful fury. Ultimately, though, it's the Empress' inability to bear her husband an heir which is the deciding factor that results in the dissolution of their highly publicized marriage six years later. In the years that follow, Napoleon sees his fortunes reversed, as he's eventually forced to abdicate the throne and, in the final embarrassment of his military career, is defeated by England's Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett) during the Battle of Waterloo. Exiled at the age of 46, it isn't long before Napoleon disappears from the French public eye once and for all. But even in death, will France's most controversial leader ever truly be forgotten?

Written by David Scarpa, the result presents itself as a blockbuster epic on par with Scott's Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. In reality, however, Napoleon plays more like one big, expensive vanity project, thanks to its glaring historical inaccuracies and a lead performance that's entertainingly baffling at best, and unintentionally hilarious at worst. Whether it's Phoenix's refusal to even attempt to put on a French accent or the fact that apparently no effort was made to make him remotely look the part of a 20-something-year-old, the list of egregious crimes committed by the film is hard to forgive. Factor in the bizarre nuances peppered throughout Phoenix's portrayal as well, and viewers may find it increasingly hard to take Napoleon seriously as the movie goes on.

That said, Scott's 30th feature film isn't without its merits, thanks to the impressive work of Production Designer Arthur Max and Costume Designers David Crossman and Janty Yates. On the whole, however, Napoleon proves to be notably less than the sum of its parts. And while moviegoers might find some enjoyment in the overall scope of its story, it's the spotlight on its titular character that makes the film's battle a losing one.

Napoleon releases November 22nd, 2023 from Sony Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of R for strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and brief language. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 38 min.

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