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Release Date: 11/25/23 [Cinemas / Apple TV+]
Genre: Action. Adventure. Biography.

Studio: Columbia Pictures. 

"An epic that details the checkered rise and fall of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his relentless journey to power through the prism of his addictive, volatile relationship with his wife, Josephine." 


When filmmakers or screenwriters commit to a project involving historical figures or events, they take on a significant level of responsibility regarding how the story is told and portrayed. While historical accuracy is crucial, it's common for biopics or films based on true events to take liberties, exaggerate certain details, or omit others, whether deemed important or not. This is usually done to create a more focused story or is related to the narrative perspective. Unfortunately, some films either disregard too many key details or lack sufficient texture, resulting in a hollow representation of the figures or events portrayed. Ridley Scott's Napoleon is a recent, frustrating example of this.


One of the most tedious aspects of Scott's Napoleon is its dullness. A film intended to depict the life of French military commander and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, renowned as one of history's greatest military strategists, should presumably focus heavily on his battle strategies and accomplishments. However, while the film dedicates some time to Napoleon's battles and wars, it offers more of a glimpse than an in-depth examination. The movie primarily focuses on Napoleon's relationship with his wife, Josephine, a baffling and infuriating creative decision that is hard to comprehend. But this is just one of the film's many issues.


A glaring flaw in Napoleon is its almost offensive disregard for authenticity. Set in France and revolving around a French military commander, the choice to cast a non-French actor as Napoleon is one thing, but the absence of French language or French-speaking actors creates a disconnect from the film's immersion. This is exacerbated by the fact that it's set during the French Revolutionary period, a time when France was at war with England. Yet, the supposed French army and Napoleon's advisors in the film all have British accents, making no effort to portray authentic French characters or settings, aside from occasional references to France and the display of French flags. This not only disrespects French history but also reflects lazy filmmaking, failing to transport the audience to that historical period. Moreover, with the film's focus on Napoleon's relationship with Josephine, pivotal moments in Napoleon's rise, reign, and fall are merely glossed over, like a disinterested student skimming a history book. The disproportionate time dedicated to his personal life and marriage, compared to these critical events, is jarring, especially since it offers little interest or insight.


The few moments in the movie that excel are, unsurprisingly, the battle scenes. Here, the filmmaking prowess shines, showcasing the impact of these wars and battles and Napoleon's strategic mind. The manner in which these battle scenes are filmed is executed exceptionally well, showcasing that Scott hasn't lost his touch in crafting visually stunning and intense sequences. Ridley's recent go-to cinematographer, Darius Wolski, excels with his use of natural and candlelight, providing some of the few genuinely authentic touches in Napoleon. Whether it's capturing the cold, grey atmosphere of a battle in the dead of winter or framing simple close-up shots illuminated solely by candlelight, Wolski's work stands out in a film that otherwise falls short.


While many of the film's shortcomings can be attributed to the direction, the screenplay by David Scarpa is primarily responsible for Napoleon's critical weaknesses. Scarpa's perplexing choice to focus the narrative on the less intriguing aspects of Napoleon's marriage and personal life, rather than the renowned achievements that shaped his legacy, is hard to fathom. The pacing of the 2-hour and 28-minute film is lethargic. Although some of this could be attributed to poor editing, the script is the main culprit. Just as the film starts to capture the audience's interest, it abruptly shifts back to what the writer seems to regard as more compelling – mundane conversations between Napoleon and Josephine about affairs, heirs, and sex. These interludes, sandwiched between the film's major war scenes, are so tedious that they leave viewers longing for the movie's conclusion. Even the scenes where Napoleon is being advised or plotting France's next strategic move lack engaging dialogue and fail to generate any real tension.


While none of the film's performances are particularly notable, primarily due to the weak script, leads Joaquin Phoenix, in the title role, and Vanessa Kirby as Josephine, do what they can with what they're given. It's questionable whether Phoenix was provided any meaningful context to enhance his portrayal. He resembles the widely accepted image of Napoleon but fails to transcend beyond being Joaquin Phoenix in a French military uniform. In fact, Terry Camilleri's portrayal of Napoleon in the 1989 film Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure feels more authentic than what Ridley Scott and David Scarpa's biopic offers. Kirby tries her best to embody Josephine, but her role is limited to that of a wife left behind, which inherently lacks depth and intrigue.


In the film's first hour, there's a scene where Napoleon, having returned from Egypt, is summoned by French political leaders and military officials to explain why he deserted his troops. Napoleon remarks that he doesn't recognize the France he has returned to, a country apparently in disarray, a state the film doesn't adequately depict. This statement metaphorically reflects Ridley Scott's Napoleon itself, as the film neither feels nor looks particularly French at any point, neglecting an essential aspect of portraying a historical French narrative. Stanley Kubrick famously invested years of research into his planned Napoleon project, a film that enthusiasts have longed to see realized in some form. We'll have to continue waiting, as Ridley Scott's version falls far short of a compelling or genuine portrayal of the French Emperor. If you're expecting to gain a deeper understanding of history or learn anything substantive about Napoleon, prepare for disappointment. The film is a painful challenge to endure, and even with the option to pause or break it up when it arrives on Apple TV+, this won't make it any more palatable. In the end, Scott's Napoleon resembles a cannon that never fires, promising much but delivering embarrassingly little.

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