Film Review: Napoleon (2023)

In a just universe, Ridley Scott’s tedious Napoleon ought to put the death knell to any more war films like this

“I am the first to admit when I make a mistake.
I simply never do.”

I am often my own worst enemy. I’d no real desire to watch Napoleon but a glance at the cast list revealed the likes of Ludivine Sagnier, Mark Bonnar, Sam Troughton, Sinéad Cusack, Audrey Brisson, Sam Crane, John Hollingworth, Ed Bennett, Robin Soans, John Hodgkinson, Richard McCabe and much more besides – so many theatrical faves! Predictably, the vast majority are blink and miss ’em cameos in this painful slog through 30 years of war and suffering that leaves us all wishing for exile on St Helena.

Ridley Scott’s last film The Last Duel really surprised me, being far better than its COVID-afflicted box office might suggest. But his take on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, written by David Scarpa, suffers from a real dearth of any characterisation or storytelling arc to carry us through the nearly three hours of this film. Pleasingly, there’s no lionisation of the French military leader, he’s thoroughly depicted as a dickhead responsible for millions of deaths but equally, no other sense of purpose emerges either.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon with a customary sense of weirdness and the film’s focus on his relationship with Joséphine de Beauharnais (an effective Vanessa Kirby) does suggest a unique point of view. But we’re not given any sense of characterisation here, any real purchase on the emotional lives that drive them. Instead we have a relentless rattle through a series of military engagements, filmed in inexplicable murkiness, with little cumulative power aside from the intimation that Joséphine was key to his success.

But as a figurehead of post-revolutionary France (we open with Napoleon witnessing the guillotining of Marie Antoinette) or as a military mastermind or otherwise, there’s just not enough here to justify the effort of watching. Those who like war films may find something of interest but Scott’s fast and loose playing with history essentially detracts from its value there and for those who question the continued propagandising of military conflict, Scott does nothing to dispel those doubts even with such an anti-hero at the helm. “Chaque vent qui souffle d’Angleterre ne m’apporte que haine ou outrage.”

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