“France. The Army. The Head of the Army. Josephine.”
Those were Napoleon’s last words uttered before his death from stomach cancer in 1821. And it is these themes that run through Ridley Scott’s latest historical war epic, Napoleon, following the self-made French Emperor from his early military successes to his eventual defeat and exile.
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Release Date: 10/22/2023
Director: Ridley Scott
Rotten Tomatoes: 59%
Where to Watch: In theaters
Joaquin Phoenix plays the titular character in a performance that is either brilliant or disjointed, and it is difficult to tell which
His performance brings to mind the oft-quoted lines from Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then, I contradict myself. / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” At its best, Phoenix’s acting unravels the complex contradictions of one of France’s greatest military strategists and political leaders—who is simultaneously the same man who led to the coining of the phrase “Napoleon complex.”
The film is ambitious, packing a lot into its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, serving as a loosely connected highlight reel of key moments from Napoleon’s life, framed by love letters written to his first wife, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby)
The film jumps between his personal romance and political/military career in a somewhat disjointed manner, spending little time explaining the socio-political context of each major event to viewers not familiar with them, and breezing over details not in line with the themes of the movie. For example, no mention is made of Napoleon’s reinstitution of slavery after becoming Emperor in 1801, and during the sequence depicting his expedition to Egypt, there is no depiction of his team’s discovery of the Rosetta Stone, one of the greatest archeological finds of all time.
Similarly, no effort is made to appropriately age or de-age fifty-one-year-old Phoenix over the twenty-eight years depicted in the film, so comprehending the passage of time—or the power that Napoleon has amassed in the interim—becomes increasingly difficult as the plot moves along. Some scenes exist only to provide a single bit of exposition before ending abruptly, and it would not be far-fetched to say that this production may set a record for the highest number of scenes lasting under sixty-seconds.
But in spite of its historical inaccuracies and pacing issues, the film boasts incredible scenery and riveting set pieces
Ridley Scott, who began his career with another drama of the Napoleonic Wars, The Duellists, has been honing his capabilities over the years as a masterful director of historical combat, with this work boasting some of his most impressive, brutal, and eerily-beautiful battle sequences, all framed with a painterly eye by frequent Ridley Scott collaborator, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (The Martian, Alien: Covenant, The Last Duel).
They even go so far as to recreate Gérôme’s famous painting Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, which most viewers are probably familiar with even if they know little of its history. Ultimately, Napoleon is a beautiful-yet-flawed historical epic that manages to leave viewers with some of the same melancholy and disquiet that plagued Napoleon through much of his life, standing strong among the ranks of Ridley Scott’s best films.
About our Admit One Author
Isaac Frankel is a freelance writer and content creator specializing in reviews and analysis of cinema, interactive media, and mythological storytelling. He was raised in Prescott, AZ, wrote his first non-fiction book in 2013 after graduating from Tribeca Flashpoint College with a degree in Game & Interactive Media Design and currently produces content for the YouTube channel: Off Screen.
More of his work and current projects can be found at www.isaacafrankel.com