​'Napoleon' Is Short on Insight, but the Battle Scenes Stand Tall

Directed by Ridley Scott

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby

Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

BY Rachel HoPublished Nov 24, 2023

The Napoleonic Code, higher education, centralized banking — Napoleon Bonaparte's reputation for reform in France, and eventually influencing continental Europe, has historically been coupled with his supposed military prowess to make the case for an enduring legacy. A closer examination of his life sees an authoritarian ruler who cruelly exploited colonized territories and whose petulance and ego caused the death of millions. Considered together, Napoleon remains a divisive figure in history, and, in turn, one of the most fascinating. 

Ridley Scott's latest epic, Napoleon, considers the Emperor of the French as a military strategist and a stubborn man-child whose love and devotion to country (in his mind anyways) deals him agonizing heartbreak. It's far from being a complete portrait of the man, or even an adequate accounting of the wars he began, but there's no denying Scott puts to screen visceral battle sequences in a way only he can, and Joaquin Phoenix delivers an exceptionally entertaining performance in the title role.

Rather than a womb-to-tomb biopic, Scott opts to capture Napoleon's life beginning as a young soldier witnessing Marie Antoinette's beheading and ending with his exile to St. Helena, with the film's coda describing his final years. It's worthwhile to point out at this stage that little is done to age or de-age Phoenix throughout Napoleon's life, other than some padding around the mid-section. 

The main show-stoppers of the film concert the many battles — my favourite being the Battle of Austerlitz, where Napoleon baited the Austrians and Russians to cross the iced-over ponds separating the two sides. These scenes are kinetic and tactile, particularly when showing the destruction of war; the grand scope of these sequences is reminiscent of an era of filmmaking Scott helped develop and refine. 

It's through Napoleon's relationship with his beloved Joséphine, portrayed by the ever-consistent Vanessa Kirby, that Scott gives his film room to breathe. Amidst the many varying assessments of Napoleon, one thing has remained consistent: his undying love for Joséphine, even in spite of the divorce he forced upon her. Through Kirby and Phoenix, we see a relationship fraught with jealousy and anger, as well as a marriage founded in genuine love and friendship. 

Napoleon stands on these two pillars without any mind given to other aspects of the military commander's life. In many ways, it feels as if Scott is flipping the bird to a film industry that takes itself too seriously. Rather than revelling in a heady character study, Scott gives audiences a glimpse of what a canon ball would do to a horse and grants the film a most unexpected humour with short jokes at the ready. It's clear by film's end that Scott is well-aware he's glossed over details and skipped over significant portions of Napoleon's life, but it's also clear that he simply wasn't interested in telling that part of the story.

Over the years Scott has become renowned for his director's cuts, and reportedly a four-hour extended cut of Napoleon awaits Apple TV+ subscribers in the near-future. While this extra runtime may give greater insight into the political machinations and motives for war, historical inaccuracies that look super-cool on screen — like firing canons into the Pyramids — most likely aren't going anywhere. 

Napoleon doesn't serve as a celebration of the leader whose legacy can still be felt across France and Europe, nor does it completely skewer the man so blinded by his own pride and rage that he emptied the bank account of the country he loved to fund his military campaigns and mindlessly ordered his countrymen to join him in arms. Scott simply imprints to celluloid the aspects of Napoleon Bonaparte he finds most intriguing for the purposes of a film. 

Personally, I think Scott has given cinema more than enough classics to excuse his disregard for precise historical accuracy. It is a movie after all — are you not entertained?
(Sony Pictures)

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