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Napoleon Movie Review

A well-made historical epic, one that stumbles on character depth and cramming twenty-five years of history into 150 minutes.

By Robert CainPublished 3 months ago 3 min read

Over a long and storied career, director Ridley Scott has been a regular presence in the historical genre. Between great attention to detail and engaging narratives, his films have achieved widespread acclaim. For his latest large-scale release, Scott takes on Napoleon Bonaparte, perhaps the most decorated and successful military master in human history. This monumental figure has been covered several times in film but rarely in a full chronicle. The 2023 release is capable enough, but it does stumble in the adaptation process.

Beginning in 1793 with the closing days of the French Revolution, Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) witnesses the execution of Marie Antoinette and begins his astronomical ascent to the top of France through a series of military campaigns. Along the way, he meets and marries Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) and the two form a complicated relationship. From here, we see the rise and fall of Bonaparte all the way to 1814 as the film covers many major events both on and off European battlefields. The attempt is noble, but right from the start, Napoleon has a problem; condensing over twenty-five years of history into two and a half hours is a tough proposition. While the film does cover all of the key events, it does so at a pace that moves too quickly, especially for the larger military operations. Infamous events like the disastrous invasion of Russia are glossed over in less than fifteen minutes; a shame as this would have been an opportunity to show the general’s changing mental state. On that note, Napoleon has a strange comedic tone in the early going; some accounts claim the Frenchman was socially awkward and this manifests with several odd moments, often taking place in the bedroom. This humour trickles away as the narrative goes on and doesn’t really contribute to larger events; instead it sticks out like a sore thumb.

The film has a large cast, but for the most part the focus is on the titular emperor and his wife. On a historical level, the film is committed to both the personal and political with the latter being presented well. Meetings between leaders and a brief excursion to Egypt show off the deliberations of the time period with a strong sense of intrigue. When the film pivots away from these elements and tries to be more dramatic, things fall short. The biggest gap is Napoleon himself; Joaquin Phoenix does a solid job conveying a combination of social awkwardness and tactical brilliance, but at the same time we never really experience the inner workings of his mind. Phoenix is a brilliant actor and he feels somewhat short-changed by the script. The same also applies to Vanessa Kirby as Josephine; it’s a good performance, but the film places so much emphasis on their turbulent relationship and doesn’t follow through with depth. As the film goes on and the two grow more distant from each other, the film lacks an emotional punch to get the audience fully invested. Still, everyone else is on point in both stature and personality.

Where Napoleon does deliver is the wider action and presentation; Ridley Scott once again shows his mastery of large-scale practical sequences alongside an excellent eye for costumes and set work. You shouldn’t go in expecting a large number of battles, but the three main set-pieces are all equally stellar. The siege of Toulon is a bloody and chaotic affair at the start, while Austerlitz pulls the audience right into the frigid wastes. As Napoleon’s enemies are sent to an icy grave, his military prowess is emphasised. Finally, the Battle of Waterloo is large and all-encompassing with hundreds of extras clashing together. The scale and violent tones are also on top form throughout. When we come away from the battlefields, every other detail is impeccable with lavish clothing, beautiful candle-lit dinners and vast estates that show off the upper echelons of French society. All of it is amazing to look at and the soundtrack by Martin Phipps delivers a rousing backdrop. Just like previous efforts in Gladiator and The Last Duel, you’ll be thoroughly impressed by the filmmaking on display.

As the first high profile historical adaptation in years, Napoleon is very well produced and packed with rich detail, but it stops short of being great. The oddly comedic tone in the first act, brisk pacing and lack of introspection are frustrating flaws that muddy the water. What could have been a powerful and weighty character study instead settles for an acceptable portrait of the general’s life.

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars (Good)


About the Creator

Robert Cain

I'm a well-travelled blogger and writer from the UK who is looking to spread his blogs and freelance writings further afield. You can find more of my work at

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  • Naveed 3 months ago

    Great going! Keep up the fantastic effort—

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