de facto film reviews 2 stars

Surprisingly, the legendary historical figure Napoleon Bonaparte has never had a historical Hollywood epic, and the grandiose new epic Napoleon doesn’t live up to the potential this story has to offer. Despite some stunning battle sequences and astonishing production values, Ridley Scott’s highly ambitious retelling of the French emperor and military commander has many high and low spots where it loses dramatic momentum and energy during much of its lofty running time. While the film hints at greatness and the big budget shows, mediocrity isn’t enough, and the film doesn’t quite have the heart of Scott’s other epics like The Last Duel or Gladiator.

While the film holds some impressive visual grandeur and commonly known historical perspectives by screenwriter David Scarpa, Napoleon holds many of the same hits and misses of many historical epics we have seen before: breathtaking production values, elegant wardrobe design, breathtaking battle sequences, and an impressive cast playing larger-than-life roles sprinkled in with melodrama, romance, speechifying, and much downtime in between the set pieces. While Scarpa, Scott, and lead Juaquin Phoenix attempt to generate darker humor and Vanessa Kirby is a scene stealer, the result becomes unevenly droll, as much of the narrative and human drama on display becomes dull and dramatically inert. Ridley Scott holds plans to air a four-hour director’s cut of Napoleon on Apple TV+, and he has stated that the theatrical cut trimmed down much of Kriby’s scenes as Josephine de Beauharnais, the first wife of Napoleon, who Napoleon loved to his very end. She is the most compelling character in the film, and in each scene, she ignites with Phoenix. However, you can sense that a lot of her scenes don’t connect well and are butchered. Perhaps the director’s cut could be on par with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America? While you can sense Phoenix is still searching for the character from the script, it’s Kirby who gives the film some dramatic flair. Perhaps Sofia Coppola should direct a Josephine de Beauharnais movie next?

Napoleon' review: Joaquin Phoenix leads the charge in Ridley Scott's chilly epic | CNN Courtesy Apple TV Productions

Of course, on a visual and technical level, Scott succeeds. You can sense some passion put into the film. One of the most monumental sequences in the film is the Battle of Austerlitz sequence. We see Napoleon and his French overpowering the Russians and Austrians on a frozen link, where many of the soldiers end up falling into the ice lake from the arm cannons and sending a massive amount of opposing soldiers retreating. It’s one of Scott’s most bravura and chaotic sequences he has ever filmed. Only if the rest had as much passion and momentum. It doesn’t help that Phoenix’s performance in Napoleon is quite inconsistent in a messy film.

While Scott and screenwriter Scarpa have a field day jeering at Napoleon’s insecurities, especially after Josephine scolds his weight and gluttony during dinner for not being able to bear children, as Napoleon screams, “Fate has brought me to this lamb chop,” and while it goes from humor, the films tonal shifts from absurd humor to the melancholic are discrepant.

Your Next 10 Steps After Watching the New 'Napoleon' Film - The New York Times

It’s not to say Napoleon and Phoenix could pull off the humor; we have seen historical epics with wit and playful humor with Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lydon, and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite. Yet those films period drama, melancholy, and wit clashed seamlessly where the tonal shifts feel more awkward with Scott’s execution. Some of the weakest writing in the narrative involves the politics, which attempts to draw parallels to many modern politicians yearning for power today, but the dialogue and decorum feel ill-conceived.

While many will have quibbles on the historical inaccuracy of the film, Napoleon really didn’t fire a cannon at a pyramid, and he wasn’t present during Marie Antoniette’s death to the guillotine. Scott, however, has a lot of opportunity to make an evocative revisionist historical epic about an insecure, power-hungry narcissist trying to inspire a nation and empower his troops to conquer parts of the world and to get the final defeat on England. Eventually he becomes a man of exile, and even with that buildup, it becomes a missed opportunity as I can only attempt to imagine what Kubrick would have done with such opportunities of isolation.

While Scott’s last epic, The Last Duel, was bone-crunching and at least engaging, you can certainly sense consistency with the actors as they turned the Rashomon-inspired film of sword play, battle sequences, and perspectives into something more enthralling. Casting the eccentric Phoenix may have been ill-advised, as he often plays distressed characters, but you never feel he goes deep enough with the role as he has in the past with other masterful roles such as The Master or even Joker. Only if Napoleon had been more dynamic, more internal, and more dimensional in the final outcome would it probably have somewhat lived up to the 1926 Abel Gance silent masterpiece. Sadly, the end result is an undeveloped historical epic, one that ridicules instead of empathizes, and Scott and writer Scarpa fail to define him as a man.

Napoleon opens in Theaters November 22, 2023