'Napoleon' Doesn’t Care about History & Bets You Won’t Either

Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby in "Napoleon"

Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby in "Napoleon" 

(Photo: Apple TV+)

Imagine you are a historian. You dedicate your life to understanding, uncovering, and preserving events of the present and past. You are a stalwart of accuracy, yet flexible of mind. Evidence is paramount. Your work is meaningful and important. Now, imagine a bulldozer driven by Ridley Scott comes through and razes your carefully researched neighborhood with a trove of fallacies and fantasies. After that destruction, Scott declares his work untouchable and mocks you for any attempt at fact-checking.

Napoleon – a transparent attempt at Oscar bait – is a dull and bloated mess; neither a war film, character study, nor love story, and mired by a strangely monotone central performance. As is evident from his scorched-earth press tour, Scott has no tolerance for criticism and no filter left. There’s something impressive about his belligerent contempt, but unfortunately, it’s not supported by a film that is deserving of this defensiveness.

This movie fails on nearly every level. As a historical account of one of the greatest military strategists, it never shows Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) formulating his battles or delving into his thought processes. If we are supposed to learn about Napoleon as a person and feel pathos for him – or feel anything at all for him – the audience is not offered character-building or bonding to warrant such feelings. Topping that off with a weird and, at times, uncomfortable portrayal of Napoleon further distances the audience. Historical mistakes and the liberties taken get excessive. And despite a run time of over two and a half hours, not a single scene feels adequately developed, and many are without context. It is more like a series of half-baked vignettes than a movie.

Joaquin Phoenix in "Napoleon"

Joaquin Phoenix in "Napoleon" 

(Photo: Apple TV+)

The battle scenes tend to be dreary and confusing. Everything gets muddy because it’s hard to tell one side from the other. There’s a notable exception for the English troops: they’re the only ones who use proper battle formation. This is not only insulting to the French, Austrians, and Russians, it’s inaccurate. Many scenes are unnecessarily gory. Early in the film, there’s a horrific horse death, which is gratuitous and grotesque. A later battle on ice is littered with horse drownings. (Alarmingly, there is no certification that animals were not harmed during filming.)

Watching a biopic, one might wonder: Who was Napoleon behind the stories and legends? Well, keep guessing because this film won’t tell you. Napoleon ambles unemotionally through critical events, most of which fail to establish a concrete identity. Scenes play out like bullet points in a highlight reel of French history, so dry they’re less memorable than cramming for a high school test. Despite his apparent lack of concern, Scott still wants the audience to believe they’re watching something historically authentic, peppering the film with dates and naming some important historical figures onscreen. But none of this matters when most characters are so underdeveloped they are instantly forgotten.

It is rumored that earlier versions of the script featured Napoleon’s wife Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) prominently, with their relationship as the focus; then Scott rewrote the script around Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. Would that it were worthy of such a spotlight. Although a very talented actor in other films, Phoenix is absolutely flat here, his expressions registering little to no emotion, his voice one-note. After his award-winning and spine-chilling turn as the Joker, this is shocking. Napoleon was known to be charismatic and inspiring; there’s none of that in this portrayal. He is dull and lifeless. When there is some vitality to be found, Phoenix’s Napoleon is either petulant or awkwardly lustful. An Oscar-worthy depiction, this is not.

On the subject of portrayals, let’s talk accents. This is a film about French people, made by an Englishman, mainly for an American audience, featuring primarily American or English accents. Joaquin Phoenix speaks in his natural accent; Vanessa Kirby uses her English accent to signify French aristocracy, as do most of the other key “French” characters. The theory was that American audiences might have laughed at French accents. Even if true, the result is puzzling. When we first see English soldiers, they speak with Cockney accents so the audience can distinguish them. It gets unbearably silly when you have the English “French” and the English “English” characters speaking with each other. 

There’s a strange bit at the end after the screen goes black showing the stats of soldier deaths during Napoleon’s reign, which number three million. Whether these are just the French losses or the total number of lives lost in battle is not clear. And what should this make the audience feel? The soldiers were never humanized, and Napoleon is our main character. Are we supposed to be horrified at the human cost and blame Napoleon? The intentions of this film are murky at best. Just don’t come looking for accuracy. In Scott’s own words: “When I have issues with historians, I ask: ‘Excuse me, mate, were you there? No? Well, shut the f*** up then.’” 

The four-plus-hour director’s cut might be released on Apple TV+ sometime in 2024, to which I ask, why? The movie is already far too long. Scott has nothing deep, interesting, or even controversial to say about Napoleon. Skip this nonsense; it’s not worth your time or money.

Napoleon is currently playing in theaters and will eventually be released to Apple TV+. 

Marni Cerise headshot

A writer since her childhood introduction to Shel Silverstein, Marni adores film, cats, Brits, and the Oxford comma. She studied screenwriting at UARTS and has written movie, TV, and pop culture reviews for Ani-Izzy.com, and Wizards and Whatnot. You can usually catch her watching Hot Fuzz for the thousandth time. Find her very sparse social media presence on Twitter: @CeriseMarni

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