Napoleon review: Ridley Scott's epic is fit for an emperor
The Joaquin Phoenix-starring biopic is occasionally a little general and risks the scorn of historians – but more than makes up for it with sheer cinematic spectacle.
Most filmmakers wouldn’t describe their comfort zone as making high-budget historical epics, but then again, few are like Ridley Scott. With sweeping dramas such as Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and The Last Duel on his CV, the 85-year-old is no stranger to soldiers, swords and sandals. So his 28th feature on the life of French emperor, military leader and despot Napoleon Bonaparte signals a perfect marriage of maker and material.
It begins with a beheading. In 1793, the guillotine sends Marie Antoinette’s head tumbling during the French Revolution, while young gunner Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) watches on with lofty ambitions to gain power. And after success in the Siege of Toulon – the film’s first show-stopping battle sequence – Napoleon swiftly progresses through France’s military ranks and corridors of power. As a Corsican, he is an outsider, but he quickly finds kinship in Martinique-born widow Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), and the pair climb the social ladder as quickly as they fall in love.
As the film spans decades of dense history, battles from the Napoleonic Wars punctuate domestic and period drama. After wasting little time with military campaigns in Toulon, Austria and Egypt, the story reaches the coup when Napoleon boldly puts France’s crown on his own head – and then it’s back to the battlefield for more extraordinarily orchestrated action.
Scott’s direction shows a gift for remaining coherent amid the chaos of battle. As audiences are thrillingly thrust between cannons and cavalry, the brutal realities hit hard, especially when the grisliest end of all is met by a horse early on. In particular, the frozen surface of Satschan ponds, seen during the Battle of Austerlitz, gives Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski the perfect canvas to paint some of the film’s most striking images.
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In his first collaboration with Scott since 2000’s Gladiator, Joaquin Phoenix lends gravity to nearly every frame and is an immaculate fit for Napoleon. In characteristically commanding fashion, the Oscar-winner expertly calculates a portrayal of a man at odds with the emperor lionised by history, frequently painting him as an insecure leader and man of contradiction.
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In the process, Napoleon’s best skirmishes are of the domestic variety, thanks to Phoenix’s co-star, Vanessa Kirby. In scenes at home with the Bonapartes, Kirby has screen presence of equal measure to Phoenix, which is no mean feat when her character’s story of struggling to bear an heir involves fewer swords and cannons.
In support, Rupert Everett shines in a third act cameo, terrifically entertaining as the sneering Duke of Wellington, a tactician at the Battle of Waterloo. David Scarpa’s script is also enjoyably more blockbuster than biography, with a second act full of comedy more akin to Scott’s House of Gucci than Gladiator. “Destiny has brought me this lamb chop!” Napoleon retorts in one fracas, and such a light touch is key to preventing the film being an overly solemn trip down the ruler’s Wikipedia page.
Scott’s first cut of the film was reportedly four hours long, and even with a runtime of 158 minutes, Napoleon risks the scorn of historians. The scale of the story naturally means much is glossed over and a slightly blunt script that gallops – at times quite literally – through Napoleon’s life could imply that Scott is working at a canter. But such concerns are drowned out by sheer cinematic spectacle best exemplified by the closing moments. As blood is spilt at Waterloo, an expertly staged set-piece caps off another large-scale achievement for Scott – and an epic fit for an emperor.
Napoleon will be released in UK cinemas on 22nd November 2023 before coming to Apple TV+. Start your seven-day Apple TV+ free trial.
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