Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon’ is Grand, Yet Flawed (Review)

by | Nov 20, 2023

Ridley Scott’s best film in over a decade is epic in many parts, but not without its issues. 

If you’ve been following the press tour for Napoleon, there has been so much delight in the comments made by director Ridley Scott. At 85 years of age, the acclaimed director could not care less what you think about the changes he made for his two-and-a-half-hour-plus historical epic regarding the tyrannical leader of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, and guess what? He’s absolutely right. With adaptations, certain liberties and changes are made to best fit a director’s viewpoint as to how to get their version of the story across to general audiences who may never do the research themselves. With Napoleon, it’s clear what Ridley is going for in terms of showing us what we might not have read in history books. But while the film has its share of moments that remind us that they just don’t make war epics like they used to, some of the drama off the battlefield is a mixed bag, as are some of the editing choices. While still quite entertaining at times, the film on a whole is a bit of a disappointment given the team behind it.

Napoleon shows us the famed military commander’s (Joaquin Phoenix) rise to becoming the Emperor of the French. Along the way, we see his triumphs in battle that win over his soldiers. At the same time, we see the other side of his life, when the film focuses heavily on his relationship with his first wife, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), and how that in part shaped him into the man he was.

Written by David Scarpa, the theatrical cut being released in theaters beginning tomorrow feels like a film in search of an identity, even if Scott is more interested in showing us the titular’s relationship with his wife. While the film emphasizes Napoleon’s big moments, sometimes we don’t get a true sense of what history has told us before the film cuts away to a moment with his Josephine. But when we see his relationship with Josephine, the film is pieced together in a way that at times puts either too much or too little emphasis on their life together, and that results in halting some of the momentum the film tries to build when some of the known history of Napoleon’s conquests and his ultimate downfall(s) arrives on screen. While the mixture of Napoleon’s battles and his love life is cut in a way that feels bizarre, it still never fails to entertain when things go boom or during dialogue-heavy moments that raise genuine interest.

With that said, the battle scenes alone in Napoleon are worth the price of admission to see this feature in theaters–and when they arrive, those parts don’t disappoint. Spread throughout the film, every one of these scenes is epic in its own way, with each one showing us actual locations along with hundreds of extras being used to surround the main character. By doing this, Scott gives us a real sense of a war epic here unlike many other films in today’s age that rely heavily on visual effects as a means to save money. Even the film’s use of cannons in general make this a must-see (or listen) in a premium format theater like IMAX or Dolby. These battle scenes remind us of the old Ridley Scott, and that in and of itself is a welcome sight and generates enthusiasm for his Gladiator sequel he’s currently shooting. 

At the core of Napoleon are its two leads, led by Academy Award winner Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon himself and Vanessa Kirby as his wife Josephine. For the most part, their chemistry is quite good. And while this may not be one of Phoenix’s best roles, it’s still a fun performance that accounts for a number of moments that make this film funnier than what any preview led us to believe. On the other side of things, Kirby turns in the film’s best performance, giving us a true sense of what it must have been like to live with someone bordering on such insanity. 

When the highs of Napoleon hit the screen, they really are high in terms of entertainment value and give us a sense of how things might have happened back during that time. But when those low moments hit, they really do feel perplexing. That includes the very end of the film, which won’t be spoiled here, which feels like an odd choice in itself. However, there are more pros that work in the film than cons that don’t, and that makes this an experience worth venturing to the theater for in order to appreciate the film’s grand scale we rarely if ever see from big-budgeted films nowadays. Ridley Scott has said in interviews that a four-hour director’s cut of Napoleon will be released in the future. And while I get that you can’t release a four-hour film in theaters nowadays (though I would be here for it if an intermission were included), Napoleon as it stands feels like another Kingdom of Heaven situation from Scott, where the director’s cut is not only the definitive edition of the story, but the better one as well; we shall see once that cut is released. But for now, at least, we can appreciate Napoleon for what it is despite its warts. 


RATING: ★★★1/2

(out of five stars)