Napoleon, the latest film from acclaimed director Ridley Scott, is a grand historical epic that attempts to cover the entire military career of the legendary figure. Set during the same period as the 1977 film The Duellists, which served as Scott’s debut feature and put him on the map, Napoleon is a visually stunning film that showcases both the misty wintry landscapes and the large-scale scenes of warfare that have become a trademark of the director’s work. The film features a robustly choreographed combat, particularly during the Battle of Austerlitz, where Bonaparte’s army sends Austrian and Russian troops plunging to icy deaths in a frozen lake.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role and Vanessa Kirby as Josephine, the historical epic is at its best when focusing on the central couple and their tumultuous relationship. Phoenix’s performance as Napoleon is eccentric, capturing the character’s arrogance and delusions of grandeur, but the film truly comes alive when he shares the screen with Kirby’s Josephine, a fallen aristocrat re-elevated by her marriage to Napoleon.
However, despite its grandeur and the visually striking battle sequences, Napoleon is ultimately a sprawling and at times, narratively sludgy and dull. The film attempts to cover a wide range of historical events, from the Siege of Toulon to Napoleon’s eventual defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. While the film’s ambition is commendable, it struggles to build these plot pieces into a fluid narrative.
At the heart of the film is Napoleon’s complex relationship with Josephine. Despite Napoleon’s many conquests, he is shown to be deeply in love with Josephine, who proves to be his equal in many ways. Kirby’s performance as Josephine, with her sly wit, cat-eyed sensuality, and innate regality, is captivating, making Napoleon’s addiction to her understandable.
The film’s biggest extended set-piece is the Battle of Waterloo, expertly orchestrated and visually impressive, but lacking visceral impact. Even following his defeat, Napoleon remains steadfast in his disdain for self-recrimination, blaming the men under his command for being unable to correctly execute his orders, offering a fascinating study of deluded leadership.
Despite its shortcomings, Napoleon is a visually stunning film, with lush cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, a wide-ranging score by Martin Phipps, and inventive use of period music. The film showcases the directorial prowess of Ridley Scott, known for his grand, epic storytelling and visually arresting sequences. With a talented cast, including Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Rupert Everett, and others, the film captures the grandeur and complexity of Napoleon’s life and legacy. Overall, while Napoleon may not be entirely compelling, it is an ambitious and visually striking epic that fans of historical dramas will appreciate.