NAPOLEON (2023) – Review – We Are Movie Geeks


NAPOLEON (2023) – Review

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The end-of-the-year awards contenders naturally include several biographical films, usually, they’re intimate tales of triumph and tragedy, such as NYAD and the upcoming MAESTRO. This holiday offering has that crossed with another genre, namely that it’s also a big sweeping historical epic. Fitting, since its subject made a huge impact on the entire world two centuries ago. In the director’s chair is a filmmaker known for such big, broad sagas, though he’s done several smaller dramas. And he’s comfortable setting his films in the far distant past and the far distant future. Here he’s flexing his considerable skills as he reunites with a former acting collaborator to tell the spectacular story of NAPOLEON.

It doesn’t begin with the title subject’s childhood, instead taking us right into France’s “Reign of Terror”, just in time for a royal appointment with “the blade”. Soon after, Lucien Bonaparte (Matthew Needham) encourages brother Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) to take command of the military forces and protect those now in power from the gathering angry mobs of citizens. From Paris, Napoleon, now artillery commander, is sent far away to end the British blockade of the ports at Toulon. After that violent battle, he returns to France where the son of a naval officer killed in the Revolution pleads for the return of the family sword. Breaking protocol, Napoleon personally returned the weapon to the lad’s home where he becomes enamored of the widowed mother Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), Napoleon courts and weds her while gaining more political and military power as he leads the forces of France in victories across the globe, even triumphing in Egypt. Eventually, he takes over the reins of royalty in his homeland, crowning himself Emporer of France with Josephine as his queen. Their marriage proves to be quite turbulent as she cannot bear him a male heir. This leads to a divorce, a remarriage to a much younger foreign royal, and a disastrous campaign in wintery Russia. Soon Napoleon is banished to the island of Elba, but homesickness prompts a return home and an effort to resume his conquests after earning the loyalty of his army. But this all may be dashed by the plans of the Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett) as he makes a final stand at Waterloo.

Bringing his off-beat acting stylings to the title role, Phoenix makes several unexpected performance choices. This makes for an odd juxtaposition with the grand spectacles of the historical recreations. Perhaps this is an effort to make the story more contemporary for multiplex audiences, but it serves to distance us from the iconic military mastermind. With his hesitant line reading and guttural grumblings, Phoenix feels more suited to recent roles like JOKER and BEAU IS AFRAID than this leader who somehow inspires troops to rejoin him after exile. Perhaps his performance is meant to comment on the recent resurgence of arrogant thugs in positions of power, but we never get inside his head. Unfortunately, one of the screen’s most interesting actresses is given little to do, other than react to his cruelty. Ms. Kirby has given us superb performances in both “indies” and blockbusters, but here she was left to be “lady in waiting” and relegated to “broken breeder”, usually with a dead-eyed grimace as “her king” goes about his “business”. One of the film’s unexpected pleasures is the return of Everett as the haughty but determined Duke who barks out commands with a sneer as though having to “put down” the French “mongell” were a distasteful chore.

Oh, the previously mentioned filmmaker is none other than the esteemed Ridley Scott, who seems to be almost “returning to his roots” with this story’s setting harkening back to his first feature from 1977 THE DUELLISTS. Perhaps that’s why the sweeping battle scenes have so much energy, plunging us dangerously close to the warriors as they dodge bullets and cannonballs (the early equine carnage may haunt you). Those bloody battlefields are effectively grim and grimy, as the cavalry attempts to dodge the cadavers that litter the countryside. And there’s an effective use of extreme locations, from the sands of Egypt to Russia’s frozen tundra (an ill-timed December surge). But then there are the long stretches between campaigns as we must bear witness to the convoluted political chaos (there are some needed ID titles for the principals) and the bickering Bonapartes which devolves into one of the most ridiculous sequences at a fancy state banquet. Napoleon’s loud public complaints over Josephine’s infertility dengerates into a clumsy “food fight”.There’s never a sense of passion between them aside from his jealousy over his “possession”. It’s not helped when major historical incidents are glossed over and even discarded. Josephine’s matchmaker son vanishes, and we never hear the fate of Napoleon’s son by his second marriage. Perhaps they’ll be seen in Scott’s proposed four-hour-plus “cut” for AppleTV+. After slogging through this 158 minute mishmash of a film that’s so uneven, it’s tough to be interested in a chance of more clunky palace verbal sparring. It seems that the biggest battle is between Scott and the “all over the place” script that proves to be the true Waterloo for NAPOLEON.

1.5 Out 4

NAPOLEON is now playing in theatres everywhere

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.