Napoleon was easily one of my most anticipated films of 2023. How does it hold up? This biographical adventure tells the story of the French Emperor Napoleon, who’s successes and failures trademarked his reign. His journey to power is explored while combatting the personal relationship with his wife Josephine. Through his many conquests, will his ego and ambition outweigh his intelligence?
There’s no doubt “Napoleon” is filmed with style and skill. Director Ridley Scott helms another historical epic, adding to his rich legacy. Many of the signature battle sequences are present, which are the best scenes in the film. They’re large in scale, making audiences feel as if they’re in the battle themselves. The detail and special effects that went into these scenes cannot be ignored. That goes for the set design as well. The entire film feels as though we are back in this era of France. From costume design to location precision, there’s not a detail wasted in the production.
I enjoyed that the story explores different aspects of Napoleon’s life. We see his quiet side as he observes others, plotting and strategizing in his head when he needs to. But we also see his temper get the better of him, where emotions run high and personal desires rule. I give Joaquin Phoenix credit for taking on this role where I was originally skeptical of his casting. While I don’t believe it’s his best performance, it carries a lot of weight as he is on screen for most of the film. He crafts an interesting portrayal even if it’s not completely successful.
I hate to say it, but “Napoleon” falters far more than it should. What could have been an epic historical drama often turns into a man absent in many of his tasks due to his thoughts being in another place. Most of this is directed towards his complex relationship with Josephine. I enjoyed seeing their relationship explored as it adds the vulnerable side to Napoleon. But far too often we are spending time on the relationship when our attention should be on the history involved. I would have preferred seeing the geopolitical issues Napoleon faced throughout his reign as it played a large part of his role as a battle leader. But the historical explorations are quickly examined on a level that I can only describe as superficial. What a shame.
I also felt the flow of the story was off. The plot largely consists of ebbs and flows of different tones and directions of the story. Never once was I grasping where the story was trying to go or what it was trying to say. It just felt odd for most of the runtime. I wish the film’s exploration of his life was as satisfying as the complex journey of his life. We never truly see how complex of a character he is and how impactful his miscalculations were to the people of France. We get the general consensus of what happens throughout time, but certain historical leisures are taken to format this specific story. Not to harp on the Josephine relationship again, but it took away from other (better) avenues. The chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby is also what frustrated me. They hardly had any! Kirby’s strengths as an actress were not present at all. Not to say she gave a poor performance, but the material she was given did not suit her style. In general, the film just misses too many opportunities to make the journey worth it.
“Napoleon” has spouts of greatness, but is hampered by an uninteresting romantic angle that eats up more screentime than it should. The battle sequences are immaculate (as expected from Ridley Scott) and the set design is top notch. But history buffs will likely be disappointed as there are noticeable changes made to his historical endeavors. Even audiences wanting a dramatic epic about one of history’s most interesting figures will likely be disappointed. It’s hard to say who “Napoleon” is made for. I feel as though no one will be truly satisfied with the end product. It’s a shame really because this had all the makings of a classic.