Napoleon is the historical account of the famed French military leader and ruler. By 1793, Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) had already begun establishing himself as a wartime strategist. In this year, Bonaparte would lead a stealthy coup at Toulon, regaining a key trading port under British control. From there, Napoleon’s lusts would only grow—for power, for glory, for recognition, and for Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby). As his ambition swells, Bonaparte’s aspirational greed does so as well. Soon, Napoleon finds himself thrust into leadership positions without limitation which takes a toll on his family, his country, and himself.
What works in Napoleon is the grandiose exploration of several pivotal moments of French history. Director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, The Last Duel) presents his prowess for historical drama once again by presenting a stunning recreation of the period. The set design, costumes, and cinematography are a delight for the senses through both quiet reflective scenes as well as the bombastic battles across Europe. At the heart of the film is Phoenix. His portrayal of Napoleon is oddly erratic, but perhaps accurate by all accounts. He’s certainly engaging, if not enigmatic, as he demonstrates military aptitude but consistently falls short in emotional intelligence. The result is a performance that will likely strike people in divisive ways but is nevertheless entertaining and could garner Phoenix yet another Academy Award nomination for Best Lead Actor.
People who find historical dramas to be tedious may not enjoy Napoleon as much as others. With a runtime of 2 hours and 35 minutes, Napoleon at times feels incredibly long. And yet, because it covers almost 30 years, the film occasionally feels like it’s moving too quickly. Time passes very fast, and the pacing may disorient some viewers trying to keep up with all the characters representing various European interests. A similar issue may occur with viewers attempting to follow character motivations. Scott spends a lot of time jumping from moment to moment, focusing on the actions people take but presents very little “why.” Kirby’s Joséphine is the clearest example of this. At times, she seems repulsed by Napoleon but not soon after, she dotes on him. Finally, Bonaparte isn’t exactly likeable, which leaves Napoleon without a central character to root for.
Napoleon is an impressive undertaking in terms of scope. It’s possible that Scott bit off a little bit more than he could chew, but there are enough highlights for fans of the genre, to at least give it go. For everyone else: let your love of history and/or Phoenix’s quirky performances guide whether or not this is for you.
Recommended if you Enjoyed: Kingdom of Heaven, The Last Duel
Napoleon is available to view exclusively in theaters starting on November 20th.