Napoleon Review: British Filmmaker Makes Laughing Stock of French Emperor

Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix's Napoleon is the unexpected comedy delight of the holiday season, as the pair satirize the little man in a big hat. The French will probably hate it.

Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon Review
Photo: Apple TV+ / Sony

Blood flows plentifully throughout Ridley Scott’s Napoleon. It practically is a title card in the film’s opening sequence, which presages the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, future Emperor of France, with the execution of Marie Antoinette. Her dripping severed head acts as a preview of coming attractions, and how the little man in the big hat would prove to be a matchstick to 19th century Europe’s powder keg of tensions. So yes, there is gore to Scott’s brisk 158-minute SparkNotes summary of the Napoleonic Wars. Battles too, if only in brief vignettes as we bear witness to flashes of the Battle of Toulon, the Battle of the Pyramids, the Battle of Austerlitz, and of course the Battle of Waterloo (we spend a little more time on that one).

And yet, the blood I speak of is not any R-rated accentuations of Scott’s reliably visceral battlefield sequences. Rather it is the choice to make the through-line not Napoleon’s megalomania, but his courtship and romance (if that is the right word) of Joséphine de Beauharnais. Lively played by a neurotic Joaquin Phoenix and an electric Vanessa Kirby, the pair create the oddest cinematic coupling since Sally Hawkins made love to a fish-man. Phoenix’s Napoleon is petulant and needy, and always hemming and hawing about his destiny while banging the table; Kirby’s Joséphine vacillates between bemused, exasperated, and patiently biding her time until his next campaign allows her eye to wander toward the strapping young officers club he leaves behind.

Is it historically accurate to the real emperor and empress who brought the world to its knees, and whose actions left more than three million people in their graves? I have no idea, but it allows Scott’s film to circumvent, if not necessarily transcend, the trappings and limitations of the biopic, a genre of storytelling that too often can reduce a human life to just one damn thing after another. Napoleon invades that territory too, but with a freakish joie de vivre you would otherwise never expect. 

Working from a fast-moving script by David Scarpa, and an even faster moving edit by Claire Simpson and Sam Restivo, Napoleon charts the Corsican soldier turned French ruler from the height of the Reign of Terror in 1793 to his final days in barren exile on St. Helena in the 1820s. Most of the major touchstones are all checked, such as the day he literally crowned himself emperor with his own two hands and announced, “I found the Crown of France just lying in the gutter, so I picked it up with the tip of my sword.” However, the key focus of the film is Napoleon’s fixation with a woman who, according to the movie, was not nearly so into him.

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When Bonaparte meets Joséphine, her hair is shorn, her prospects limited, and her reputation in tatters. In fact, she may have only survived facing the guillotine, a fate endured by her late aristocratic husband, because the architect of the Revolution’s bloodlust, Robespierre, had himself just recently been sent for a shave to his favorite razor. Nonetheless, she is dubious about this strange possessive man who stares at her but cannot make love, even when they’re glimpsed mechanically performing the act in a frosty bedroom. She grows to appreciate his oddness, though, and his power as he rises up the ranks. Conversely, he begins contemplating displacing her because after a decade of marriage, she still has not given him a son.

Cards on the table, I strongly suspect French viewers will not take to this Napoleon. It may have always been doomed due to the glaring choice of not casting one French actor, and worse having an American play the nation’s greatest general. (Normally such issues do not bother this reviewer, but it is unusually noticeable when a bunch of British actors express their revulsion toward Wellington and the Royal Navy). Yet the bigger issue is likely to be the surprise that Scott’s portrait is one done entirely as a scathing satire. 

While I am no expert in French history, there is the unmistakable sense that this Napoleon is an Englishman’s smirking estimation of “the little general” (as the Brits were wont to say in the 19th century) with the big head. In addition to dryly alluding to his lack of stature, the film revels in his oversensitive neuroses and red-faced petulance.

When Joséphine calls him fat before his guests, he boasts “I enjoy my meals!” and that destiny has brought “this lamb chop to me!” He subsequently winds up throwing food at his wife as the conversation further deteriorates. When she publicly cuckolds him, Phoenix leans into the comedic touches he used to flavor his pitiful collection of sad sack losers, from Joker to Her. His face is a sea of fidgeting ticks that betray a desire to sob. Even his grand coup where he wrestles flickering democracy from the jaws of France has an element of farce as he initially flees for his life from the French Directory (the post-Revolution’s legislature). He’s filmed in a comically wide shot sprinting from the angry politicians, huffing and puffing as he cries for his army. “They’re trying to kill me!” he mewls. 

The film concedes the man’s tactical brilliance and ruthless cunning on the battlefield, but in all other arenas you’re never once given a clue why anyone would follow this emotional wretch into battle.

As a bit of unlikely epic cinematic comedy, it’s highly entertaining, and pairs well with a more layered performance by Kirby. Joséphine is presented as a very practical woman living in an impractical time, as France throws out one set of egomaniacal rulers just to hand the reins of power to another nutter. While the screenplay underlines her initial disinterest in the popular man, the actress’ performance slowly lets down a mask of steadily growing attraction, albeit I’d hesitate to suggest it is toward Napoleon. Instead this seems to be a film about two people who come to adore power, his over France and then continental Europe, and hers over this otherwise powerful man who’s left besotted by her beauty.

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This grounds the movie, as does Scott’s reliably luxuriant filmmaking panache. The director of Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and The Last Duel knows his way around epic storytelling, and the attention paid to the exquisite costumes by Janty Yates and David Crossman, or the merciless battlefield tactics at frigid Austerlitz, is reliably stunning. Presumably details are fudged, as is Scott’s custom, but his canvases are so detailed you’re still tricked into believing every moment’s suggestion of authenticity.

These virtues also mask that, again like Kingdom of Heaven and plenty of other Scott films, Napoleon has been transparently edited down to a commercial length that stumbles its ambition. Certain sequences, such as Napoleon and Joséphine’s estrangement and subsequent pseudo-reconcilement, occur within the span of minutes, and when one character mentions it’s been 15 years since the film began, audiences may be astonished that it’s been more than a handful of months.

It is unlikely any two and a half hour film (or even one that’s four and a half hours) could ever do justice to a life as grandly operatic as Napoleon’s. Still, Scott’s narrower desire to just take the piss out of him feels rushed and incomplete. Undoubtedly, there will be a director’s cut down the road with even more laugh-out-loud moments like Napoleon crawling on his hands and knees beneath a tablecloth, begging for Joséphine’s attention.

The one time in my life I was ever in Paris, I briefly visited the Tomb of Napoleon, an enormous dome filled with gold and marble statuary, plus a bed of roses around the former French emperor’s well-polished sarcophagus. As someone who is primarily aware of the man’s exploits from a decidedly English-skewing perspective, it seemed peculiar to me that a strongman who triggered what was basically a series of world wars should be so mourned. Napoleon gives no clearer insight as to why this little guy is still mythologized, but it sure suggests he is one of history’s biggest punchlines.

Apple’s Napoleon is in theaters in the U.S. and UK (in partnership with Sony Pictures) on Nov. 22 ahead of the film’s global streaming premiere on Apple TV+ at an unspecified later date.


3.5 out of 5