November 14th, 2023
STARRING: JOAQUIN PHOENIX, VANESSA KIRBY, RUPERT EVERETT, TAHAR RAHIM
DIRECTED BY: RIDLEY SCOTT
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 4 STARS (Out of 4)
Writers note: I feel with each film installed into Ridley Scott’s filmography that I must clarify my stance on his work. He is unequivocally my favorite director and what he accomplishes, his style, and his themes, all fascinate me. I’m passionate about it. That is no different with Napoleon and to no surprise…I loved it. I begin to wonder what it would take for me to dislike a Ridley Scott movie. You may not be able to trust my review as much as the other critic, but maybe my passion for his films can rub off when you read my work, either way, here is my review for Napoleon.
Napoleon opens with the beheading of Marie Antoinette and closes with the collapse at Waterloo. Within the runtime of two hours and thirty-five minutes, we capture the large scope of a man, not just in his rise to power, but also in how someone so small reaches a position of authority. I don’t mean small in height- although there are a few sharp jabs at that- but a truly small man within himself. A man wreaking of jealousy, where he would disown his wife for not providing an heir, go to war because a response wasn’t given to a peace treaty, or send countless numbers of men to die without batting an eye. That is the picture painted by Ridley Scott. Surrounding these moments of pettiness are grand battle sequences, a complex relationship with his wife Josephine, and a shocking amount of comedy. The result is a sweeping epic, filled with the ugly politics of French society, the cold sting of war, and a man who fell upward on his rise to power. Napoleon is a towering success.
The screenplay, written by David Scarpa, isn’t attempting to be accurate but instead making accurately broad strokes. It kicks off with Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) in his early stages as a military general and his first successful battle at Toulon. With this taste of success, he wants more, working with his brother Lucien (Matthew Needham) and French General Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim) to enact a coup against the French council. They succeed and in celebration of the takeover, he meets Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). She is a survivor, not willing to bow to anyone, but with Napoleon’s persistence, they marry. Through stone-cold glances and letters to one another, we gather the complexity of their relationship and the reality that Napoleon could not be satiated. It’s followed by a historic victory at the battle of Austerlitz. He soon gives himself the title of Emperor, is then forced out of power, then isolated to the island of St. Helena, and brought back in power again. Napoleon charges on, stepping over the wants or needs of others, and the bodies of dead soldiers.
Although the historical side may not entice the common audience goer, what will win them over is the groundbreaking direction from Scott. This is a man at the age of 85 and here he is filming some of the greatest battle sequences I’ve ever seen. Horses charge at incredible speed. The cannons fire with a thundering sound. Wrapped around this is impeccable costume design and set production on par with Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. The themes echo Scott’s first feature The Duellists, but fit closer to a beautiful combination of House of Gucci and The Last Duel. Where the former is about a woman tearing down an empire instead of losing it, Napoleon is about a man doing that all by himself. And where the latter is about the honor of men at the expense of a woman, Napoleon is about a man lacking in honor and unwilling to change for his greatest love. He must go on and fight, forgetting what it was all for in the first place.
Performance-wise, this might be some of the most fun Phoenix has had with a character. He soaks up the childish behavior. “You think you’re so special because you have boats” he bemoans like a petulant child. The performance is less angry compared to his Commodus in Gladiator and more maniacal than his Arthur Fleck in Joker. It’s also balanced by the mature and stoic gravitas of Kirby. The two are playing mind games. Withholding sex, puts Napoleon in a cuckold state, while his military successes leave no impression on her. It’s in the later act where we see that these two undeniably had a love for one another, him more so than her, but it was a love of survival, not a love of great passion. When the passion faded, Napoleon was ready to move on and find his next conquest.
When it’s all said and done Napoleon will stand atop the mountain for epic and grand scale productions for today. There are not-so-subtle similarities to the childish natures of men in power. A leader who is laughed at makes a mockery of his country, attempts a coup, and is left on an island in his shame. It’s a throwback of great auteurs, the likes of David Lean, and Stanley Kubrick, or as recent as Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite. The lack of CGI, the amount of extras for soldiers, mansions with pristine details in every room, and war sequences that give you goosebumps. With each film that Ridley Scott adds to his illustrious career, the greater his successes, but unlike his title character, he stands taller than all the rest.
The Apple Original Film “Napoleon” from acclaimed director Ridley Scott will first be released exclusively in theaters worldwide, in partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment, on Wednesday, November 22, before streaming globally on Apple TV+.
Written by: Leo Brady