Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Few historical figures are as fascinating, well documented or extensively studied as Napoleon Bonaparte. The Corsican man who rose to prominence during the French Revolution, and eventually became the Emperor, Napoleon’s cultural legacy is both celebrated and greatly controversial. Therefore, it stands to reason that many filmmakers have attempted to bring his story to the screen. Many of these attempts yielded no results, with famed directors such as Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick failing to lift their proposed projects out of development hell. Despite a few (minor) cinematic appearances, the most well known Napoleonic film remains the Italian-Soviet co-production, Waterloo (1970), directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. However, that film only covers the titular battle, meaning no film has yet told Napoleon’s entire story. Ridley Scott has attempted to change that, with his massive biopic, Napoleon (2023).
The story begins circa 1793, when the French Revolution is in full swing, with a young Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) bearing witness to the execution of Marie Antoinette. From there, the film charts Napoleon’s meteoric rise to power, depicting his victories in Toulon, Egypt, Austerlitz and Russia, eventually leading to his defeat and exile from The Battle of Waterloo. Across this 28 year long story, the majority of the narrative is framed around Napoleon’s tumultuous marriage to Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), with whom he shared a passionate, yet manipulative and toxic relationship. With mutual infidelities, and difficulty conceiving a child, Napoleon’s autocratic rule and meticulously organised battles are apparently dictated by his blinding obsession with Joséphine.
With films such as Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and The Last Duel (2021) on his resume, Ridley Scott is the director most suited to deliver a Napoleonic epic. Granted, complete historical accuracy is often treated as an optional extra in Scott’s films, but that doesn’t necessarily make or break a film. For example, Gladiator has some real life figures as key characters, but is an entirely fictionalised story. Thus, that film’s success comes down to how well it creates the cultural feel of Ancient Rome, regardless of how slavish it is to the details. Similarly, Kingdom of Heaven knowingly defies important events which led to The Third Crusade, but it does so in order to explain things for the layman. With that in mind, let’s examine the purpose behind Napoleon’s revisionism.
Firstly, it’s impossible to depict every single moment of Napoleon’s life across two hours and 38 minutes. Understandably, the film can only hit a few major beats, and it does so in the order they occurred. Massively important sections of history are left out, making this a heavily abridged version of events. This wouldn’t be an issue if the story being told was clear, but sadly it rarely is. If the viewer has no knowledge of Napoleonic history, it’s likely they won’t have learned much by the time the credits roll. Similarly, those with knowledge of the period won’t be satisfied either, seeing as the film struggles to capture the significance of each event, the influence Napoleon had on the world, or even basic character motivations. At a certain point, it’s as though Scott realised the information is impossible to follow, resorting to character names, places, dates and event titles being written on the screen seemingly at random.
With all this confusion, one would hope the depiction of the man himself would tie things together. Unfortunately, this also leaves something to be desired. Joaquin Phoenix certainly delivers an excellent, compelling, and richly detailed performance, but it’s hard to glean what the viewer is supposed to take from this depiction. On a storytelling level, Scott clearly wants to display Napoleon’s ego and self-importance, but that completely overshadows some extremely necessary aspects of the character. The childish tantrums are played up to such a degree, that it’s difficult to believe Napoleon was a brilliant military tactician, that he was feared by his enemies, or that he was loved by his soldiers. There is an element of comedic parody at play, but Scott tries to have it both ways, given there are many scenes requiring the viewer to understand Napoleon’s groundbreaking battle tactics and influence. Anyone who doesn’t know anything about Napoleon would think “really? This guy was important?”
The comedic touches Scott sprinkles throughout is one of the most curious choices, as it is arguably the main thing preventing the viewer from engaging with the material. To be clear, it’s not impossible for historical films to take a satirical approach, as The Favourite (2018) The Death of Stalin (2017), Amadeus (1984) and Barry Lyndon (1975), managed to be just as hilarious as they were dramatic. Napoleon attempts a similar balancing act, but doesn’t quite hit the bullseye. There are definitely moments that will have the viewer in stitches of laughter, but that probably has more to do with the attempted jokes failing, rather than succeeding. A punchline can only take full effect if the build up isn’t tampered with. As such, it feels as though massive sections of the film have been deleted with no rhyme or reason. As it happens, this is actually true, as Scott himself confirmed that the version released to cinemas is deliberately shortened (with the full film set to be released on AppleTV+ at a later date). It’s nice to have cinematic releases be a reasonable length, but the irony is that a disengaging shorter film feels like an eternity when compared to an engaging longer film. As it currently stands, the fairly basic message feels grossly underdeveloped, and somewhat uninspired.
Despite failing from a storytelling and historical perspective, Napoleon‘s technical aspects are beyond reproach. As is expected of a Ridley Scott epic, the production design, costumes, visual effects and cinematography are wondrous to behold. In a cinematic landscape dominated by green screen and computer generated imagery, Scott still amazes the viewer with his ability to physically transport us to the time period using mostly practical effects, sets, and thousands of extras. There certainly are green screen and computer effects, but they are integrated seamlessly with the in-camera tricks. In the grand scheme of things, it’s only a small win, seeing as the narrative shortcomings make it difficult to appreciate the filmmaking mastery.
Ridley Scott’s Napoleon was the biggest and boldest attempt to bring this story to life, yet unfortunately it failed to truly display why he mattered. Whether you’re a historian, an uninitiated viewer wanting to learn, or even a filmmaking fan, Napoleon falls frustratingly short.
Best way to watch it: Probably just wait for the un-butchered version, set to be released on AppleTV+.