Sir Ridley Scott needs no introduction. The mastermind behind cinematic staples like Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, and Gladiator has been celebrated for decades. However, there’s no denying the fact that this late era of his filmmaking career has been his most divisive yet. From his two ambitious Alien prequels, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, to his glossy biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings to his Oscar-nominated sci-fi drama The Martian, Scott has continued to swing for the fences without a single care for public opinion. Also, it was only two years ago that he released two widely different projects, House of Gucci and The Last Duel. Again, say what you will about those movies but Scott releasing both in his mid-80s, in the same year no less, is extremely impressive. His latest, a historical biopic on the life of French Emporer Napoleon Bonaparte, is nothing short of remarkable.
Napoleon is arguably Ridley Scott’s most well-rounded work in years, nailing the grand spectacle of a historical epic with the right blend of addictive melodrama that you would expect from its star-studded cast. This film will most definitely have lots of detractors, but just like how people criticized the very much intended campiness of House of Gucci or Ben Affleck’s humorous role in The Last Duel, there will be no winning them over. As the popular saying goes, “They didn’t get it.” One of the best aspects of Scott’s Napoleon is how it can go from the unrelenting bloodshed of the battlefield to not taking itself so seriously when diving into the insecurities and god complex of our titular emperor. It’s the kind of historical drama that knows how to deliver cinematic visuals and brutal action while also having enough fun exploring its main subject, regardless of historical accuracy.
However, this isn’t to say that there’s a total disregard for historical accuracy in Napoleon. The screenplay, written by David Scarpa (All the Money in the World), kicks off with Napoleon Bonaparte witnessing the beheading of the former Queen of France Marie Antoinette at the guillotine, signaling the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. We then jump across notable events in Napoleon’s established military career as he rises in power from Captain to General and then in his political career as he goes from being the leader of the French Republic as First Consul to the Emporer of the French Empire. These time jumps play out rather smoothly as the script gives us the basics of what we need to know and fills in the gaps with imaginative reenactments of key moments in French history. Scott keeps everything going at a fluid pace, making the two-and-a-half-hour runtime fly by.
The first act of Napoleon is Ridley Scott’s bread and butter, the English director making the bloody battle sequences and immersive visuals look all too easy. It’s not until Vanessa Kirby takes the spotlight as Napleon’s first wife, Empress Joséphine, that this movie finds its own unique edge. Joaquin Phoenix’s face may be all over the film’s posters, but this story just as much belongs to Kirby. In fact, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that Phoenix’s performance as Napoleon wouldn’t completely work without having Kirby to bounce off of. These two performances may not be entirely historically accurate, yet they work for Scott’s melodramatic, often humorous tone. And to play into Scott’s own criticisms of historical accuracy, this is a cinematic adaptation – not a school lesson. If you’re staying true to the key facts, then what’s wrong with taking a few creative liberties in between?
Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon Bonaparte carries a smug face from beginning to end, trying his best to display self-assurance and superiority on the outside. Yet, underneath his stern and off-putting mannerisms, you can easily tell that his insecurities are eating away at whatever humanity he’s got left after leading countless battles. These many insecurities surface behind closed doors next to Empress Joséphine, revealing a sad little man in a silly uniform. Vanessa Kirby’s Joséphine de Beauharnais has already been to hell and back even before meeting Napoleon. She lost her first husband to the guillotine and was imprisoned in poverty during the Reign of Terror. Joséphine isn’t the only one who can see through Napoleon’s facade as the destined ruler of France, but she is the only one who knows how to challenge him about it. Kirby’s ferocious attitude balanced with shades of fragility is perfect for the role.
Napoleon and Joséphine’s dynamic as the Emporer and Empress of France is incredibly toxic, though you can’t help but think that maybe there is true love to be found between them as they’re all that they’ve got in a world that only sees them as political chess pieces. For all the spectacle on display, Napoleon is truly at its peak wherever Phoenix and Kirby are on screen together. They give the film a real beating heart and their twisted romance makes for entertainment that you can’t look away from. The most hilarious and memorable moments come from their relationship, and it’s obviously meant to be seen as silly and maybe even a bit overexaggerated. As previously said, some moviegoers might not see eye to eye with this kind of tone. But without this element, Napoleon could easily risk falling in line with lesser, or more vanilla, historical adaptations.
Other standout performances in Napoleon who deserve recognition include Matthew Needham as Lucien Bonaparte, Tahar Rahim as Paul Barras, Paul Rhys as Talleyrand, and Édouard Philipponnat as Alexander I, the Tsar of Russia. Dariusz Wolski, Ridley Scott’s go-to cinematographer, doesn’t disappoint with unforgiving images of war and sweeping landscapes. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the grueling sequences in Napoleon often feel like a swift gut punch, which some will surely grow tired of by the end due to how extreme they can be. Scott doesn’t hold back, and this could be his only detriment in the case of this project. Napoleon is the second prestigious theatrical release co-funded by Apple Original Films this year (in this case with Sony/Columbia Pictures) with an estimated $200 million budget. The other is Martin Scorcese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a masterwork in its own right.
Whereas Scorcese decided to go with a three-and-a-half-hour runtime for his picture, Ridley Scott chose the shorter two-and-half-hour runtime for Napoleon but has since teased a much longer 4-hour Director’s Cut that is said to be coming to Apple TV+. The pacing in the theatrical cut of Napoleon isn’t a problem, though it does feel like there are some potential moments missing from the second act leading into the film’s finale where Napoleon is exiled to the island of St. Helena. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say the ending of Napoleon is abrupt, there could have been a stronger build-up to these closing moments that are impactful nonetheless. Should have Scott decided to go with a longer runtime seeing as Scorcese got away with something similar, or would a longer cut of Napoleon feel too bloated? It’s hard to say until we actually see the director’s cut.
For now, Napoleon still stands as one of the finest pictures from the late era of Ridley Scott’s iconic filmography. Will it win over the naysayers? Probably not, and it was never going to. Scott continues to stick to his guns and up his ante in new and exciting ways. Whether or not the longer cut of Napoleon falls into this category still remains to be seen. Will we be there on day one of its streaming release? Of course, because we should be so lucky to still have legends like Scott swinging for the fences at this high of a level. Regardless if this isn’t your cup of tea, there’s still admittedly a lot left to learn from what this filmmaker has to offer. If anything, Napoleon should get fans even more excited about what Scott has in store with his next movie, the highly-anticipated sequel Gladiator 2.