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‘Napoleon’ Review: Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby Get Bogged Down in the Battles of Ridley Scott’s Historical Epic

Numerous times in Napoleon, the mist settles over wintry landscapes, delicately summoning visual echoes of The Duellists, the 1977 debut feature set during the same period that put Ridley Scott on the map. Then there are muscular, large-scale scenes of warfare more characteristic of the veteran director’s later work, notably the Battle of Austerlitz, where cannon fire from Bonaparte’s army sends Austrian and Russian troops plunging to icy deaths in a frozen lake, its water stained with blood. But for all its brawn and atmosphere and robustly choreographed combat, this is a distended historical tapestry too sprawling to remain compelling, particularly when its focus veers away from the central couple.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the title role is as eccentric as any the mercurial actor has given, even if his tics don’t always seem entirely grounded in character. But it’s when he’s onscreen with Vanessa Kirby as Josephine, the fallen aristocrat re-elevated by her marriage to Napoleon and then nudged aside when she fails to produce an heir, that the nearly three-hour historical epic is most alive.


The Bottom Line More ambitious than involving.

Release date: Wednesday, Nov. 23
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Mark Bonnar, Rupert Everett, Youssef Kerkour, Ian McNeice, Ben Miles, Paul Rhys, Ludivine Sagnier, Edouard Philipponnat, Matthew Needham
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: David Scarpa
Rated R, 2 hours 38 minutes

Abel Gance’s 1927 French silent film, also titled Napoleon, is the most famous screen portrayal of the historical figure. It spent five-and-a-half hours following the protagonist from his formative childhood years through the early upheavals of the Revolutionary Wars and ending in Italy, with visions of future battlefield glory filling the 26-year-old military leader’s head.

Perhaps picking up where Stanley Kubrick left off in his unrealized attempt to make a Napoleon feature, Scott aims to provide a sweeping overview of the subject’s entire military career. But even with the near-constant bluster of infantry clashes, stealth attacks, skirmishes and thunderous bloodbaths, Napoleon often feels narratively sludgy, dull and flat.

David Scarpa’s screenplay opens in 1793 with the guillotining of Marie Antoinette and the unrest in France that creates an opportunity for Napoleon to make a name for himself as a gifted military strategist. He achieves this at the Siege of Toulon, where he leads troops to take the Anglo-Saxon fleet by surprise, securing the harbor and thus reclaiming the town for the Republic.

The film proceeds through a timeline that will be familiar to history students, if probably not altogether lucid to anyone hoping to get a crash course here — the downfall of Robespierre; the end of the Reign of Terror; the conquest of Egypt; the 1799 coup that overthrew the existing French system of government; Napoleon crowning himself Emperor of France in 1804; the decisive Battle of Austerlitz; the failed attempts to establish peace with England and forge alliances with Prussia and Austria; the French invasion of Russia with its heavy losses; Napoleon’s abdication and initial banishment to the Mediterranean island of Elba; his return to lead France in a humiliating defeat against England; and his ultimate exile to the British-controlled island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.

That’s a lot for any audience to digest in a single sitting, and while Scott can be commended for his ambition, neither he nor Scarpa manage to build those many plot pieces into a fluid narrative.

The throughline is Napoleon’s relationship with Josephine, whom he meets at a Survivors Ball in the newly liberated Paris and marries two years later. For all his self-assurance in military maneuvers, Napoleon recognizes from the outset that Josephine is his equal, or perhaps even his superior. And when he returns from Egypt indignant about being mocked in the press for her philandering, Josephine rebuffs his attempts to shame her: “You are nothing without me.”

That unusual dynamic between one of the most powerful men in the world and a spouse who not so long ago was in prison might have been enough to give Napoleon a more consistent pulse had their scenes together been given space to breathe and develop. But Scott is always too eager to get back out in the field, where Napoleon’s letters home to Josephine have to maintain the thread.

Despite frequent bouts of sex amusingly played by Phoenix like a rutting farm animal, Josephine’s belly remains empty. But she blithely deflects the blame onto her husband at the dinner table, calling him fat. In one of many touches of gonzo humor that animate Phoenix’s performance, he snaps back: “Destiny has brought me here! Destiny has brought me this lamb chop!” The unwillingness to acknowledge defeat of any kind, be it marital or military, is a key trait of the characterization, making it both funny and pathetic when Napoleon shouts “We are winning!” on a battlefield strewn with the corpses of his infantry.

But somehow, none of this adds up to a well-rounded portrait of one of the most driven men in history; at times I wondered if Phoenix was still in character from Beau Is Afraid. Kirby’s sly wit, cat-eyed sensuality and innate regality make Josephine the more intriguing figure and certainly make Napoleon’s addiction to her understandable. But there should be real poignancy in him being manipulated by his mother and other advisors into divorcing her and producing an heir elsewhere, even if he remains devoted to his ex-wife with a love that continues after her death.

The film’s biggest extended set-piece is the Battle of Waterloo, with the English led by Rupert Everett drolly chewing the scenery like a scowling pantomime ponce as the Duke of Wellington. (This is not a film in which the supporting cast generally gets to make much of a mark.) The fighting itself is expertly orchestrated, with Napoleon failing to anticipate the crushing effectiveness of frontal assault by the Brits and a flank attack by the Prussians. But the movie’s battles are more impressive in scale than in visceral impact, even with inventive use of period music and a wide-ranging score by Martin Phipps. There’s also a disappointingly murky look to much of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s widescreen visuals.

Even following this final defeat, Napoleon remains steadfast in his disdain for self-recrimination, blaming the men under his command for being unable to correctly execute his orders. “That is what’s most difficult in life, accepting the failure of others.” There’s a potentially fascinating study of deluded leadership in that statement, but somehow it never coheres here into a satisfying portrait.

Full credits

Production company: Scott Free
Distribution: Columbia, Apple TV+
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Mark Bonnar, Rupert Everett, Youssef Kerkour, Ian McNeice, Ben Miles, Paul Rhys, Ludivine Sagnier, Edouard Philipponnat, Matthew Needham
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: David Scarpa
Producers: Ridley Scott, Kevin J. Walsh, Mark Huffam, Joaquin Phoenix
Executive producers: Raymond Kirk, Aidan Elliott, Michael Pruss
Director of photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production designer: Arthur Max
Costume designers: Janty Yates, Dave Crossman
Music: Martin Phipps
Editors: Claire Simpson, Sam Restivo
Visual effects supervisors: Charley Henley, Henry Badgett, Luc-Ewen Martin-Fenouillet, Simone Coco
Special effects supervisor: Neil Corbould
Casting: Kate Rhodes James
Rated R, 2 hours 38 minutes

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