Ridley Scott has directed some truly amazing films. The Martian, Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, Blade Runner, the list goes on and on. But he’s also had some very average, and even subpar films in his career. House of Gucci, Alien: Covenant, Exodus: Gods and Kings, G.I. Jane, that list also goes on and on. So when a new Ridley Scott movie is announced, in this case Napoleon, you never really know what to expect.
Napoleon is the latest release from the famed director, and unfortunately it fails to impress. Early trailers and sneak peaks of the film made it seem like a French version of Gladiator. If that had been the final outcome, the movie would’ve been much better for it. Instead, Napoleon is a film that simply isn’t compelling in any way.
Joaquin Phoenix is one of the best actors of his time, and has starred in a number of extremely compelling films. As Napoleon Bonaparte, he almost feels miscast. Napoleon is not a character you can root for, even when he proudly returns from exile. As the primary focus of the film, we get a historical take on the character, but nothing that allows the audience to take a vested interest in him.
Napoleon feels more like a high-budget documentary than a Ridley Scott blockbuster. Napoleon is played in a very serious manner, but we never get to see what’s going on behind the scenes. He was a brilliant military strategist, and the battle scenes are nearly on par with what Ridley Scott accomplished in Gladiator, but with no emotional investment in the character, or the film as a whole, even the best battles wouldn’t help the movie.
Seeing what Napoleon was thinking going into each battle beyond a cursory one minute strategy meeting could have helped connect the character, and the coming battle to the audience. The closest Scott gets is when the Russian Tsar Alexander (Edouard Philipponnat) is said to mimic Napoleon, only to lose the battle and throw a temper tantrum. But we don’t get to see the temper tantrum, or even a look into Alexander’s mind and why he looked up to Napoleon’s battle tactics. All we get is a second hand account of it all.
The most interesting aspect of Napoleon is his wife, Josephine Bonaparte (Vanessa Kirby). There are a number of layers to this character, but she feels like an afterthought in the movie. Supposedly the four hour AppleTV Plus cut of the film will delve into Josephine and explore more of the character and her relationship with Napoleon, but very little of that is in the theatrical cut.
There’s just nothing entertaining about Napoleon. In Gladiator, the audience roots for Maximus (Russell Crowe), and hates Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). It offered a valuable contrast between good and evil. In Napoleon there’s no one to root for, so the film ends up being a limited historical account without truly offering a character or even a cause for the audience to invest their time into.
At nearly three hours in length, most audience members will be checking their watches, waiting for the Waterloo battle so they can go home. From a technical standpoint, Napoleon checks every box. The costumes are well-detailed, the acting is superb, the battles can be a little monotonous, but are still mostly interesting, and the camera work is exactly what you’d expect from Ridley Scott. But none of that prevents the film from being boring.
Synopsis: 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.
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: David Scarpa
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim
Runtime: 2 Hours, 38 Minutes
Bryan Dawson has been writing professionally since the age of 13. He started his career as a video game writer and has since worked for Random House, Prima Games, DirecTV, IGN, AOL, the British Government, and various other organizations. For GNN, Bryan taps into his passion for movies.