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Napoleon review: a thrilling, hilarious historical epic

Joaquin Phoenix holds a spyglass in Napoleon.
“Anchored by Joaquin Phoenix's unforgettable lead performance, Ridley Scott's Napoleon is a thrilling, shockingly funny epic.”
  • Joaquin Phoenix's towering-yet-ridiculous performance
  • Vanessa Kirby's combative supporting turn
  • Ridley Scott's unparalleled blockbuster direction
  • A disappointingly rushed final hour
  • A few tonally inconsistent moments throughout

Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is a blunt-force instrument of violence, spectacle, and — in an unexpected but welcome surprise — humor. Like its infamous subject (played here by Joaquin Phoenix), the film is neither subtle nor indirect. With its portentous opening sequence, which lingers on the bloody aftermath of Marie Antoinette’s beheading, Napoleon announces its intentions early. The film promises an up-close, unvarnished look at one of the most tumultuous periods in European history, and it mostly delivers. Its battles are as gory and explosive as fans of Scott’s past epics — namely, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven — will want, while its peeks behind the curtain of its eponymous figure’s reign are funnier and more farcical than many may expect.

Napoleon is, indeed, far more comedic and tongue-in-cheek than its trailers have sold. It’s a purposefully inelegant film, one that doesn’t so much dance through the years of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life as it does charge through them. The movie’s deliberately unrefined approach hurts it in its second half, which is so truncated that it comes across as disappointingly slight, but it’s also what makes Napoleon’s initial hour so thrilling. Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa are so merciless in their depiction of their subject’s brutish handling of both war and love that what emerges is one of the most refreshingly unmannered historical epics in recent memory.

Joaquin Phoenix stands behind Vanessa Kirby in Napoleon.
Aidan Monaghan / Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures

Over the course of its sizable-yet-not-long-enough 157-minute runtime, Napoleon attempts to chart its protagonist’s decades-spanning military and political career — beginning with his successful reclamation of the coastal French city of Toulon and ending with his famous defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. The film doesn’t rely solely on his military career for its story, though, instead intertwining his political victories and defeats with the highs and lows of his marriage to his Empress Josephine (The Crown‘s Vanessa Kirby). Their relationship, as portrayed by Kirby and Phoenix, is simultaneously passionate and mercenary, jagged and tender. It’s the thing that strengthens them and tears them down, Scarpa’s subversive screenplay establishing a destructive codependency that makes Napoleon feel, at times, reminiscent of one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s prickly dramedies (see: Phantom Thread, Punch Drunk Love).

NAPOLEON - Official Trailer (HD)

Little connects Kirby’s Josephine and Phoenix’s Napoleon, including sexual chemistry, outside of their hunger for each other and their shared need for constant validation. Their relationship is the source of many of Napoleon’s greatest and funniest moments, which include a nightlong argument scene that jarringly bounces between childish outbursts and tear-stained, hoarsely whispered moments of mutual ego-boosting. Few other movies this year have featured a single editorial flourish as hilarious as when Scott cuts directly from Phoenix screaming at Kirby about his emotional needs to his stone-faced declaration that he’s “not built like most men.” (Other highlights include a dinner-table argument between them that escalates into a brief food fight and climaxes with Napoleon petulantly screaming, “Destiny brought me to this lamp chop!”)

As one of history’s most oft-ridiculed tyrants, Phoenix is astonishing. He plays Napoleon not as a brilliant, admirable tactician and politician but as a boorish man-child whose utter lack of self-awareness and incapacity for introspection are what allows him to ascend so quickly up France’s chain of command and also blinds him to just how despised he is by every other European leader. He’s both terrified of the feminine power of the women in his life and yet subservient to it. Opposite him, Kirby is beguiling as Josephine, a woman intimately aware of how unstable her position truly is but who is unable to break free of the societal rules that bind her. The strength of Kirby’s performance ultimately lies in how she conveys Josephine’s simultaneous heartbreak, frustration, and resignation over the untenable nature of her circumstances.

Joaquin Phoenix crowns Vanessa Kirby in Napoleon.
Aidan Monaghan / Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures

At times, Scott and Scarpa draw too obvious of a line between Napoleon’s military career and the state of his relationship with Josephine. For the most part, though, the film’s mix of battle scenes and interpersonal drama works well — Napoleon’s various militaristic victories and defeats serving as awe-inspiring expressions of his own ambition and stubbornness. Behind the camera, Scott brings a steady, assured hand to Napoleon’s action sequences — cutting from sweeping shots of horses charging across battlefields to closer images of swords clashing, cannons firing, blood spurting, and limbs flying. Scott, as always, assembles Napoleon’s battle scenes out of thick, broad brushstrokes — painting maximalist portraits of mayhem and violence.

The film proves, once again, that few directors are as capable of handling such massive, burdensome set pieces as Scott. Together, he and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski ensure that Napoleon’s three major battles visually stand apart from each other. With its nighttime setting and heavy use of mortars and cannons, the Siege of Toulon emerges as an explosive, sweaty conquest that leaves all of its combatants caked in dust and blood, while Scott composes the Battle of Austerlitz out of purposefully cold, emotionless images of men standing between snow-covered trees, ice breaking, and limp bodies sinking beneath the surface of a frozen lake. The director, conversely, stages the film’s climactic Battle of Waterloo on an open, rain-soaked field — rendering each moment of Napoleon’s greatest defeat as straightforwardly and plainly as he can.

Joaquin Phoenix wears a green coat in Napoleon.
Aidan Monaghan / Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures

Napoleon’s final battle helps bring the film to a fittingly grand conclusion, and Scott’s direction of the sequence is undeniably impressive. However, Napoleon becomes increasingly unwieldy the further into its runtime it gets. Once it reaches its 90-minute mark, the film is forced to rush through as many moments of its subject’s later career as it can and, in doing so, it loses the attitude, sense of humor, and spaciousness of its first half. Odds are, that isn’t the case in the four-and-a-half-hour cut of the film that Scott has already discussed.

It seems highly likely, in fact, that the superior version of Napoleon will, like Kingdom of Heaven and Blade Runner before it, ultimately be Scott’s director’s cut. That version may even be the filmmaker’s latest masterpiece. As it stands now, though, Napoleon is an immensely entertaining but flawed epic that ironically falls just short of the mark of greatness — if only by about an hour or so.

Napoleon hits theaters nationwide on Wednesday, November 22.

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Alex Welch
Alex Welch is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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