Besides Scorsese with his David Grann adaptations, Ridley Scott may be the only filmmaker alive still offering old-school historical epics that not only expansively capture the epoch of a potent historical time through the lens of complex characters, but also have something to say about the modern world. Whether that be the #MeToo resonance of The Last Duel, the view of social hierarchies in House of Gucci, or the skewering of the political strongman in his latest feature, Napoleon.
This drama begins with the titular military commander (Joaquin Phoenix) observing the execution of Marie Antoinette, sensing an opportunity to fill the void of leadership and unite France amid the Revolution. We cut to the beginning of Napoleon’s military campaign, beginning in Egypt, which parallels his introduction to Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), a woman in the inner circle of France’s political elite. Knowing Napoleon desires her more than she desires him, the tension between the two forms a sensational dynamic between the two strong-willed characters.
The film dedicates itself to depicting his military conquests, but not always to the same extent. This is where Scott’s storytelling is rather uneven, as the early battles are portrayed rather quickly, with greater importance placed on his relationship with his new wife, which is underlined via letters he writes to her being voiced over the visuals of his overseas expeditions. Later in the film, the action sequences become bigger in scope, with the Borodino and Waterloo battles serving among two of the greatest sequences of filmmaking all year, at the expense of the momentum of the personal element. It’s clear where writer David Scarpa runs out of juice to squeeze in the domestic storyline.
However, all that said, readers will have heard of the existence of a four-hour cut that undoubtedly will mine deeper into the intimate machinations of Napoleon and Joséphine’s life, while giving equal weight to his life on the field and seeing the sheer impact it had in undermining France’s popularity, with so many lives lost at the hands of his brutality and egotism. There are certainly ideological parallels to be drawn with some of the global leaders of today.
Ultimately, Napoleon is a quintessential Ridley Scott epic, and one that definitely justifies an even longer version. In any case, see it on the biggest screen possible.
Napoleon is released nationwide on 22nd November 2023.
Watch the trailer for Napoleon here: