Production Companies: Apple Studios, Scott Free Productions
Director: Ridley Scott
Producers: Ridley Scott, Kevin J. Walsh, Mark Huffam, Joaquin Phoenix
Scriptwriter: David Scarpa
Main Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Ramin
Release Date: November 22nd 2023 (US + UK)
Running Time: 157 minutes
He came from nothing and ended up history’s greatest and horniest conqueror… Thanks to some hilarious debates and retorts over Napoleon’s historical accuracy, it has quickly shot into the public consciousness. And honestly, it’s perfectly fine as a late shout for an Oscar nomination but it really isn’t as good as some people are making it out to be. Anyway, let’s delve into the film about history’s horniest Corsican dictator and like the Battle of Austerlitz blow this thing wide open….
Napoleon is a historical drama which follows the titular figure from his early days during the Siege of Toulon to his final days in exile on the isle of Saint Helena. It sees him develop from lowly artillery commander into the most feared military mind of not just this generation but maybe of all time. This is achieved thanks to the central performances of Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon and Vanessa Kirby as his wife, Josephine. Along with marital problems at home, Napoleon also has to deal with the threats of Imperial attacks from Russia, Austria, Prussia and Britain threatening to take his throne away.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Performance in Napoleon
In the interest of not making this all about the historical inaccuracies, given my knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars isn’t fantastic, I’m going to start with the performance of Joaquin Phoenix as the perfectly average sized Napoleon. Now while the film does drag on, Phoenix manages to be consistently engaging throughout as he roughly captures the two sides of Napoleon. Firstly, the conquering side as seen by him gazing up at the Sphinx and leading his army at the battles of Austerlitz and Borodino. And what of the other side of Napoleon aka the loving husband?
Again, he does a great job here as even after she cheats on him and can’t bear him a male heir, Napoleon still feels affection towards his wife, Josephine. Also, that scene where Napoleon arrives back in France only to have been too late to spend a last day with his wife is heartbreaking and a testament to Phoenix and Kirby’s performance. Another example of Phoenix’s excellent performance is when he meets Francis I of Austria after Austerlitz. Here, despite the fact he won, the sinister undertones of a man who was seemingly never satisfied with what he had achieved. Overall, the performance is mostly as the French would say fantastique.
Vanessa Kirby’s Performance in Napoleon
Now, it’s impossible to discuss Phoenix’s performance without mentioning Vanessa Kirby’s performance as Josephine. Now whilst there’s a good portion of her screen time that is dedicated to Napoleon’s many, many conquests of her, she does have some agency. This mostly comes when she is arguing with Napoleon about his decision to become emperor or whose fault it is for Josephine not bearing him a male heir.
Especially with the latter scene, the use of an over the shoulder shot from Josephine’s perspective shows how no matter what, she was never going to be able to win this battle. But it really feels like a kick in the stomach that her most impactful scene comes after her death where Napoleon mourns the fact he couldn’t have arrived quicker. So, while Kirby’s performance is very good it does feel like a slight kick in the stomach that her agency does decrease as the film moves on.
Scale in Napoleon
And with the lead performances out of the way, let’s talk about the grand scale of the battles in Napoleon, especially the Battle of Austerlitz. Firstly, the cinematography during these is fantastic as the use of long shots and high angle shots of the Austrians and Russians when Napoleon traps them is beautiful and almost voyeuristic as Napoleon destroys them. Also, the slow motion shots of the cannon balls flying through the ice feed into Napoleon’s cruel genius as the cracking ice and blood of enemy soldiers ramp up the terror the audience is feeling.
Furthermore, the shot of soldiers sinking to the bottom of the frozen lake by using close ups is brutal but emotionally effective as it shows the human cost of Europe’s constant wars against Napoleon. Also, while not technically a battle per say, that shot of Napoleon walking into Moscow whilst its burning down is both haunting and powerful. Man, some of the cinematography here is just excellente.
To summarise Napoleon, this is a well acted and made, if not slightly too indulgent, biopic of one of history’s horniest conqueror. While the performances of Phoenix and Kirby help carry the film, by the end you will feel like the European powers when Napoleon returned from exile. As in oh my lord he’s still going. But overall, a solid biopic which is unlikely to blow the Oscars race wide open…
Overall Rating: 7/10 – Respectable
Target Audience: 15+
Content Warning: Moderate Sex and Nudity, Severe Violence and Gore, Mild Profanity, Mild Alcohol, Drugs and Smoking, Severe Frightening and Intense Scenes