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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'Napoleon': A Visually Stunning, Occasionally Messy Historical Epic


Based on the trailers and other promotional materials, it certainly seemed like Napoleon aimed to be a old-fashioned historical epic, not too much unlike the ones that were prominent in the 1960s. In fact, some of this film's big battle sequences call to mind large setpieces like those seen in films such as Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus. Now that I have seen Ridley Scott's Napoleon, detailing the life of the iconic Emperor and military figure Napoleon Bonaparte, I would say that Spartacus is a very apt comparison. Between the massive battle sequences, historical dramatizations, and the use of a cast of American and English actors to play real people who were neither American nor English, there are quite a few similarities between the two films. In addition to this, I would also argue that this film has a fair amount in common with another Kubrick film, 1975's Barry Lyndon. Granted, this is not a one-to-one comparison, but both films have a surprising amount of humor, gorgeous production design, and some not so subtle contempt for their respective protagonists. It's a bit of a surprise, as everything else about the film feels rooted in the more traditional components of films like Spartacus, but Napoleon doesn't posit Bonaparte as a hero by any means, and instead presents him as the complicated figure he was. While the film itself isn't the most accurate account of Napoleon's rise and fall, it is a rather engaging one, and features some excellent filmmaking from Ridley Scott, despite the film's flaws.


The film begins with the beheading of Marie Antoinette, as the French Revolution rages on in Paris. Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) is seeking promotion in the French army, and eventually works his way up to being a commander. Along the way, he meets Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), with whom he has a tumultuous relationship with. As the film goes on, we see the friction between Napoleon and Joséphine throughout their marriage, all while Napoleon continues to lead the French military into multiple battles. Through this prism, we follow Napoleon as he rises to the top of French nobility, as well as his ultimate downfall.


Ridley Scott's filmography is a bit of a rollercoaster, as he has made some truly excellent films, and some real duds. His output seems to be even more varied as of late, leading to the impression that you never know what you're going to get from him. As a result, I tend to go into his films with tempered expectations, as I don't want to get my hopes up too much and be disappointed. With Napoleon, he delivers a mix of war scenes, political intrigue, relationship drama, and tinges of campy humor. It's a blend that might not sit right with some viewers, but for whatever reason, it worked quite well for me. It's not perfect by any means, but I was very intrigued from start to finish with this film. There are some lulls, but I never found myself bored by any stretch. Scott directs the larger setpieces brilliantly, which are undoubtedly the film's strongest moments. However, I personally think the moments that focus on Napoleon and Joséphine are directed fairly well, as Scott knows when to push toward melodrama and when to play things a little more straight. It helps that some of these moments are legitimately funny, as it gives the film a sense of levity that helps it flow nicely. I have some nitpicks with a couple of scenes, but I can't help if these would be remedied by the rumored four-hour cut of the film. Either way, I mostly think that this is some of Scott's strongest direction of the past decade, even if it is a bit messy at times.


Some people might take issue with the historical accuracy of the film, which is quite fair. But I will say that despite the film taking some liberties with Napoleon's story, it is presented in a way that doesn't feel too egregious. Screenwriter David Scarpa does a great job of translating Napoleon's life to the big screen, and allows his rise and fall to unfold in a very cinematic way. It may not be the most comprehensive or accurate account of events, but it is an entertaining one, and at the very least, got me interested to dig deeper into the history of the French Revolution and to learn more about Napoleon. I can't say that others will have the same reaction, and might be put off by the film's strange tone, but it definitely piqued my curiousity in Napoleon as a historical figure.


Napoleon is at its best when is operating on a grand scale, partially due to the fact that we don't see very many films like this with such a large scope anymore. At a time where major setpieces rely heavily on CGI and green screen, it is refreshing to see a film use practical locations like this one does. The battle sequences, as stated above are a major highlight, and really blew me away by the sheer magnitude of what Scott and company are pulling off here. The film also employs shadowy color grading at times, which occasionally makes it difficult to see certain things, but largely works to give off a sense of accuracy and tension to the battle sequences. This is also effective in the sequences in the palace, as the shadows are offset by candlelight or sunlight, which allows for some striking imagery. Dariusz Wolski's cinematography on the whole is pretty good, although sometimes the shadows do get in the way of the action. But Wolski is excellent at shooting the bigger moments of the film, and frames certain scenes so beautifully. The film also features great costuming that fits the time period, including Napoleon's iconic military uniform, and the production design is immaculate both in the Paris scenes and in the numerous battle sequences. I would be surprised if this film doesn't get at least a couple of below-the-line nods at this years Oscars, as it is hard to deny the technical prowess on display in this film.


When I first heard that Joaquin Phoenix was cast as Napoleon Bonaparte, I was a little skeptical. I generally like Phoenix as an actor, but I was unsure if he would be a good fit for this role. While I wouldn't say he's doing his best work here, he is rather great, playing Napoleon's self-importance and steely confidence rather well. It's the type of role that some actors might feel the need to ham up, but Phoenix takes a more measured approach that works rather well for the film. He manages to feel more restrained without sacrificing the things that make Napoleon so compelling. In addition, his portrayal makes Napoleon come across as a bit more pathetic, which seems to be a major aspect that Scott wants to highlight. Napoleon is never a sympathetic figure, nor is he lionized over the course of the film, but is portrayed as more of a power-hungry man who is unaware of his own flaws. Phoenix does a great job of bringing this version of Napoleon to life, and managed to exceed my expectations of how he would fare in the role.


I would say that the best performance of the film would have to be Vanessa Kirby, who is excellent as Joséphine. Kirby is an actress who has been great in everything I've seen her in, and this is definitely one of her top tier performances to date. The character is a bit underserved, but Kirby captures the craftiness and confidence of Joséphine, and depicts it so naturally in the context of the film. She and Phoenix have a great dynamic, and they show both the love and disdain they have for each other in such a fascinating, compelling way. Kirby is at her most interesting when her and Phoenix trade off who has the power in certain situations, and she is so magnetic in these moments. Kirby is so good in this film, and I can't get certain aspects of her performance out of my head.


Napoleon isn't a perfect film by any means, but it is a great, cinematic re-telling of Napoleon Bonaparte's life. Those looking for an accurate account of his rise and fall will be disappointed, and the weird tone might be off-putting to some, but it worked rather well for me. Despite its flaws, this ends up being one of Ridley Scott's better efforts of the past decade or so, and truly surprised me across the board. It is pure spectacle on a massive scale, and had me hooked from the opening scene. It's the type of big, historical epic that doesn't get made very often, and it is so great to see something like it on the big screen again.


Rating: 4/5

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