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Review: Napoleon. Better take a nap, don’t waste your time

  • Release year: 2023
  • Director: Ridley Scott.
  • Producers: Mark Huffam, Joaquin Phoenix, Ridley Scott and Kevin J. Walsh.
  • Screenplay by: David Scarpa.
  • Cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski.
  • Music by: Martin Phipps.

Synopsis: biopic about the life of Napoleon Bonaparte from the Toulon battle until his exile after the Waterloo defeat.

Shotgun Commentary: unless you are obsessed with the figure of Napoleon, skipping this film is strongly encouraged.

Fig. 1. Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) preparing to charge.
Source: Napoleon (Ridley Scott, 2023). Apple TV+.

Review

The reasons behind the making of Napoleon are quite unexplainable. The tale itself does not offer more information than a quick Google research on Napoleon and maybe a couple of days of highschool-level European history studies. The narrative follows Napoleon from his first big win until the last. Adding the beheading of Marie Antoinette for reasons unknown, presumably to compensate for the lack of it in Marie Antoinette (2016).

Wrong focus

While the depiction of his battle strategies is incredibly interesting, especially for anyone interested in strategic games, there is only one moment where it can actually be seen. Most of the other armed conflicts are skimmed through with a quick display of production resources that do not impress more than the battles in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) trilogy. As for the special effects happening during clashes at sea or shore, they are surprisingly similar to those in the original trilogy of Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-2007).

Fig. 2. Napoleon’s army firing a cannon. Source: Napoleon (Ridley Scott, 2023).
Apple TV+.

This comes to show that, unless there is going to be a novel addition to a battle, surprising the audience is no longer as easy as it used to be. Either the fighting scenes are special in some way, or the story is so engaging that those scenes become irrelevant. Sadly, this film possesses neither of those qualities. Napoleon’s personal life is not fascinating enough to make his military career a background, and his position in history as the greatest strategist of his time is barely shown, rendering his figure another lonely, sad man defeated by his own ambitions.

The mistake in plain sight

The main two characters, Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) and Josephine Bonaparte (Vanessa Kirby) are played by very talented actors. This does not compensate for massive error of judgement. While it is not a bad choice to have the characters speak English since that makes it easier to reach wider audiences, Josephine has a thick British accent.

Fig. 3. Napoleon and his wife Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) seducing each other.
Source: Napoleon (Ridley Scott, 2023). Apple TV+.

Considering that Napoleon spends most of his time fighting the British, did no one in that huge production notice how that would be confusing and take the audience out of the account they are watching? It feels like Napoleon married a British woman, which he most certainly did not. A mistake like this would not be so terrible if the character was barely on screen. However, her constant presence, physical or only verbal, acts as a permanent reminder of the lack of care the production put into making the character of Josephine half believable.

Undirected talent

By all means, none of this is Kirby’s fault. Other than her accent, her performance is sublime. She breathes life into Josephine with a perfect display of emotions and adds a great amount of charisma into her, much like she does with most of her characters. For his part, Phoenix is more subtle in his performance, but not any worse. He shows Napoleon’s famous tantrums and hubris as much as he shows his passion and intelligence. Both performances are brilliant and sadly way over the level of the rest of the film’s aspects.

Confusingly hilarious

One feature that really stands out, especially once you are aware of it for the first time, is the score. There is one track in particular that is largely composed of a choir of vibrating voices singing one note each in what sounds like a place with a lot of echo.

Fig. 4. The cavalry charging. Source: Napoleon (Ridley Scott, 2023). Apple TV+.

At first, you don’t perceive that the sound is there. Then, it is the only thing you can focus on until you want to rip your ears off or break the movie to make it stop. Finally, it becomes comical. The same experience takes place during The Nun (2018), only in that case the voices are frightening instead of annoying, but the hilarious end result is the same.

The one success

Arguably the best part of Napoleon is the costume design. Every outfit replicates those worn during that time, whether it is in museums or paintings, the style of that time is widely displayed all over the world, so a mistake there would have been painfully obvious. However, the work of the costume department is fantastic as they deliver faithful reproductions of outfits worn by the real Napoleon and Josephine as seen in different historical documents. If only the rest of the motion picture had taken such care, this review would have gone in a whole other direction.

Fig. 5. Napoleon crowning Josephine. Source: Napoleon (Ridley Scott, 2023).
Apple TV+.

All in all, Napoleon is a film that doesn’t add anything historically or in terms of leisure. Unless you are a Napoleon devotee, this feature will bore you to death, especially if you studied him during highschool. The talent of its actors and costume department are the only things keeping an otherwise average and overproduced product afloat.

Advice to take from this movie:

  • If you are going to depict historical figures talking a different language than it would be accurate, at least make them speak the most neutral way possible, not with an accent from a completely different nationality altogether.
  • An interesting historical figure doesn’t automatically make an interesting film.
  • Two hours is more than enough to tell a story, if it’s longer, it’d better be VERY justified.
Fig. 6. Napoleon observing the rival army and the piramids.
Source: Napoleon (Ridley Scott, 2023). Apple TV+.

What’s your take? Have you watched Napoleon? Have you been able to sit through the two and a half hours it lasts? Do you regret it or did you love it? Don’t hesitate to let me know your thoughts in the comments section below or leave a message in my contact page! For more reviews and cinema-related articles check out the rest of my blog! 😀

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