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Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024
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REVIEW: ‘Napoleon’ is a predictable and soulless telling of the French dictator’s life

Solid performances from Phoenix and Kirby are not enough to save this dud

One of the most anticipated films of 2023, “Napoleon” sees famed director Ridley Scott take another stab at a historical epic. If there is one thing this film isn’t, it is epic.

The film tells Napoleon Bonaparte’s (Joaquin Phoenix) rise to, and subsequent fall from, power through his relationship with his wife Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby). Beginning with the beheading of Marie Antoinette and ending with the death of Napoleon, the film tracks key moments in the infamous French ruler’s life as a military commander, political leader and husband.

Throughout his career as a filmmaker, Scott has had films triumph like with “Blade Runner” and his Best-Picture-Winner “Gladiator,” and many that swooped below expectations “Alien: Covenant” and “House of Gucci.”  “Napoleon” falls with the latter – it’s ultimately an uneven and unfulfilling film that offers viewers nothing beyond what they would expect from a film entitled “Napoleon.”

The film attempts to tell the story of the relationship between man and wife, however, Joséphine’s character is completely secondary in the story. Scott portrays her only as an addition to Napoleon. The film openly embodies the male gaze in its portrayal of Joséphine, often objectifying her through the eyes of Napoleon.

The portrayal of Napoleon himself is fairly compelling. The film spends lots of time making him seem childish, insecure and generally unlikeable, which almost makes it a borderline comedy. At my screening of “Napoleon,” many audience members (myself included) laughed out loud several times throughout at Napoleon’s exaggerated personality. While laughing at Napoleon was fun, it made the film feel tonally irregular.

“Napoleon” spends too much time making the infamous legend an unlikeable person, rather than a bad person. While there is no shortage of jabs directed at Napoleon’s personality, scenes of him committing war crimes are brushed over carelessly.

“Napoleon” is also just disappointing as a historical film. Movies that examine historic figures and events always have the potential to reach true grandeur. They can go all out with sets, costumes and music to reconstruct this past world on the silver screen. “Napoleon” falls short on this front entirely; it never goes above and beyond to immerse the viewer. Both the sets and wardrobe are drab and uninspiring – some sets even look slightly too modern for 1700s France.

Composer Martin Phipps’ score for the film is bland and offers no enhancement of emotion or atmosphere to the scenes it plays over.

On an aesthetic level, the film falls completely flat. It is boring to look at, including superfluous slow-motion shots and a lazily thrown otiose blue-gray tint on a majority of the scenes (as shown in the above photo).

To give credit where credit is due, the movie’s battle scenes are impressive and perhaps the only outstanding quality of the film. And though it is not enough to save “Napoleon,” Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby both play their roles as Napoleon and Joséphine effectively. 

On an overall scale though, “Napoleon” is a disappointing film: lacking in both substance and style and paling in comparison to other Ridley Scott films, biopics, historical epics and dramas.

“Napoleon” is in theaters now.

This article was edited by Bailey Hobbs, Patricia McGee and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis, Luna Jinks and Charlie Mennuti. 

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