Review

Napoleon (2023) Review

The word “comedy” is the last thing on my mind after watching what I originally thought Ridley Scott’s Napoleon to be a straightforward historical biopic. He directed David Scarpa’s (All the Money in the World) screenplay, embracing Napoleon Bonaparte’s quirkiness wholeheartedly. And Joaquin Phoenix, reuniting with Scott after his Oscar-nominated supporting performance in Gladiator twenty-three years ago, turns out to be the right man for the titular role.

Phoenix is no stranger to playing colourful roles and this includes the aforementioned Gladiator, playing a role best described as a power-hungry spoiled brat Commodus. Movies like I’m Still Here, Inherent Vice and this year’s Beau Is Afraid further proved that Phoenix has a knack for portraying eccentric and unconventional performances.

At first glance, the idea of casting then-48-year-old Joaquin Phoenix at the time of filming as Napoleon Bonaparte seems like an ill-advised decision. Scott doesn’t seem to bother about de-age Phoenix when Napoleon is promoted to brigadier general at the age of 24 following his victory on the Siege of Toulon in 1793. It sure takes me a while to get used to seeing the middle-aged Phoenix playing Napoleon, particularly during his younger-day era.

And yet, Phoenix’s offbeat portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte’s volatile personality traits is more than enough to offset my scepticism about him being picked for the role. He successfully captured the historical figure’s social awkwardness as well as his insecurities and oddly mumbling behaviour. But his complicated sex life with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby, looking magnetic as usual with her icy charisma), which happens to be the movie’s primary focus, is rather a mixed bag. The story details from the moment Napoleon lays eyes on her to his subsequent courtship and eventually, a turbulent marriage.

Vanessa Kirby as Empress Josephine in "Napoleon" (2023)

Pairing Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby seems promising on paper. Unfortunately, their on-screen chemistry is practically non-existent, making me wonder whether Scott intends to depict them as muted as possible to reflect their mostly loveless and erratic relationship. Scarpa’s screenplay also deals with the standard inner-political intrigue surrounding Napoleon’s reign as the emperor, which turns out to be a less intriguing part of the movie.

The story may have been uneven but Scott remains the master of his craft when it comes to executing epic battle scenes. This is where he truly excels, beginning with the earlier Siege of Toulon, showcasing Napoleon’s tactical skills in defeating the British army on the ground and blowing up their ships with cannonballs. Scott doesn’t shy away from the matter-of-fact graphic violence while capturing the brutality of the battle scene. At one point, there is even a grisly scene revolving around Napoleon’s horse.

Then, there’s the Battle of Austerlitz, which is highly regarded as one of Napoleon’s most significant military achievements during his reign. Scott made sure of that by expertly staging the snowbound battle between his army against the Russians and Austrians. Here, we see Napoleon commands his army to fire cannonballs onto the frozen lake, causing the opposing soldiers to plunge into the icy waters.

Finally, Scott goes all out on the Battle of Waterloo during the climactic third act, capturing the massive scale of the war scene, thanks to his dynamic camerawork and Dariusz Wolski’s majestic cinematography on the rain-soaked, muddy location. Watching the scene unfold on IMAX is certainly a sight to behold  — the cannonballs hurtling across the cloudy sky, the marching armies firing against each other and most of all, the British army’s ingenious move of forming the infantry squares to fend off the incoming cavalry attack.

Napoleon is far from Scott’s best works in his directorial list of historical/period genres on par with Gladiator and the director’s cut version of Kingdom of Heaven. But at least it wasn’t as bad as 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Robin Hood and Exodus: Gods and Kings, given Phoenix and Kirby’s stellar performances alongside Scott’s impressively mounted battle scenes.