Napoleon Review

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For anyone not following cinema news over the last year, Napoleon is the latest film by Sir Ridley Scott (Gladiator, The Dualists), starring Joaquin Phoenix, (Joker, 8mm) as the titular emperor and Vanessa Kirby (The Crown) as Empress Josephine. Written by David Scarpa (All the Money in the World), the theatrical version of this sprawling eighteenth century epic follows Bonaparte’s journey as lowly French artilleryman to emperor of France and exile to the isle of Saint Helena.

Enthusiasts of historical battlefield reenactment may walk away disappointed in this version of Scott’s film. Most of the runtime centres on old mate Napoleon’s dysfunctional relationship with Josephine and the rest of Europe’s monarchs. Manipulating the political machinations of the post French Revolution era, Napoleon is a little preoccupied with his self proclaimed destiny for greatness. Feelings matter not to the staunch and of average height for his time leader. Unable to determine how great is great enough, Napoleon’s lust for position and legacy compels him to be a smug arsehole to everyone around him.

Phoenix is superb, as to be expected, portraying Napoleon as a social outsider, direct in his opinion and more than a little weird in his obsessions. Vanessa Kirby is equally brilliant portraying Josephine, seductive, seemingly fragile but strong willed and free spirited. Witnessing their emotional struggle in private moments is captivating, awkward and a little endearing. A credit to the two leads for their performance.

Dramatic licence dictates that there will be historical inaccuracies, one of which boils down the coup of 1799 to little more than swindling situation comedy. Speaking of comedy, there are genuine laughs to be had in odd moments with the way Phoenix conveys Napoleon’s tantrums. Along with his shortcomings in the bedroom.

Napoleon may be a fish out of water at home, but it’s the battlefield where he shines. History states the man was (almost) unequalled when it came to pulling tactics from his toolbox on land. If Napoleon’s military career is a lake, this version of his story is a skipping stone as we touch only three major campaign events. Not counting lesser engagements such as, I don’t know… quashing royalist rebellion with cannons on the street.

If you’re in this for the thrill of terrifying and bloody battle scenes, hold out and cross your fingers for the four hour version coming to Apple TV. Which should feature much more warfare from Napoleon’s seven European campaigns.

As the song goes, Napoleon meets the end of his career at Waterloo and Wellington takes pleasure in sending him off to exile, where Napoleon spends the rest of his days until his natural death.

The theatrical version runs for two hours and forty minutes, but thankfully, it doesn’t feel that long. All of Scott’s auteur flair is on display in this effort, offering an engaging historical film that’s easy to take in. Like Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, the longer version is likely more favourable. As it is now, Napoleon hits a 7/10 for heartfelt but misguided eighteenth century family drama.


Luke is writing short stories, screenplays and film reviews when he's not at the day job or looking after the needs of his family. So one Powerball...