- Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Ludvine Sagnier
- Ridley Scott
- Biography, Drama, War
- Release date
- November 22, 2023
It’s challenging to provide a definitive ranking of conquerors based on the number of peoples conquered, as the concept of “conquered peoples” can be interpreted in various ways, and historical records may not always provide accurate or comparable data. However, a handful have indelibly carved their names in the annals of history as men for whom boundaries were obstacles to be broken. Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great subsumed vast territories of the known world during their reigns, and their names have become synonymous with greatness. Though neither Napoleon nor his empire quite reached the same breadth as those others, those others did not have canons with which to contend.
By the age of 45, Napoleon had conquered 40%-60% of Europe, with much of the rest of the continent having treaties with France that granted it significant wealth and influence. Yet, most Westerners know little more about Monsieur Bonaparte than he tucked his hand in his shirt for a portrait and he was short (he wasn’t – by the standards of the time, he was of average height)
Starring Joaquin Phoenix as the titular emperor, Napoleon tells the story of his rise and fall, beginning with the battle that earned him his General stripes to his ultimate defeat and exile (spoiler alert – of course, it happened over 200 years ago, so not knowing is a bit on you). In a film about an ambitious and charismatic world-conquering leader with a well-documented ego the size of his empire and a cutting wit to match, it seems more than reasonable that a 2.5-hour epic about his exploits would make for a riveting film.
However, for reasons only known to them, both director Ridley Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa chose to filter the events of this complex man through the prism of his odd relationship with his first wife, Josephine. As a result, much of the film feels repetitive as the Bonapartes spend time apart: Napoleon writes her letters, they come together, they fight, they make up, and the cycle begins anew. All of this is occasionally punctuated with the afterthought of battles that feel more like fanservice to history buffs than they do the world history-altering events that they were (never mind their glaring historical inaccuracies).
What makes it worse is that the audience gets everything that it needs to understand the relationship within the two’s first few scenes together and via the copious narrated letters that we hear throughout the film. Furthermore, Phoenix, who has played some wonderfully dark and quirky characters during his career, spends most of the movie looking either sulky or clinically depressed. Except for one or two actions taken during the film, the movie gives no sense of the charismatic leader who charmed an army into rebellion…twice.
Ridley Scott seemingly thought it was far more critical to portray Bonaparte as a socially awkward cuckold than to give us a film that lived up to this one’s tagline: “He Came From Nothing. He Conquered Everything.”
At the film’s end, the title cards list the number of battles that Napoleon led, as well as his major campaigns and the number of those killed as a result. It would have been great to have seen a movie in which those world-changing battles had not been treated as nuisances, and audiences came to understand a complex man whose social reforms still affect modern society 200 years later.
Wokeness ruined the movie, but the movie isn’t woke.
The creators’ own wokeness likely shaped their outlooks on Napoleon, which precluded them from highlighting his greatness (which would have made his downfall and foibles all the more poignant). However, there doesn’t seem to be an agenda to the film. There are no girl bosses, no out-of-place diversity, Christianity isn’t trashed, and I didn’t see any LGBT agenda-driven BS. It’s just not a great film.
We dinged the movie 10 points for a couple of jarringly out-of-place sex scenes. The purpose of each was seemingly to illustrate that he was an ineffective lover for no other reason than to knock him down a peg in the viewer’s mind.
James Carrick is a passionate film enthusiast with a degree in theater and philosophy. James approaches dramatic criticism from a philosophic foundation grounded in aesthetics and ethics, offering insight and analysis that reveals layers of cinematic narrative with a touch of irreverence and a dash of snark.