Review: Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon’ Starring Joaquin Phoenix

The longevity of a Ridley Scott as a filmmaker is extraordinary. He continues to churn out massive productions on the scale of Napoleon more than forty years into his filmmaking career – and well into his eighth decade on this planet. The scope of the stories he captures puts him in a league of his own, from Blade Runner, to Gladiator, to The Last Duel. At the age of 86, Scott is already knee-deep in work on his next epic, the sequel to Gladiator. He is a true master of his vision as a director, more than proving his ability to tell the stories he wants to tell, exactly how he wants to tell them. This is why Columbia Pictures and Apple Original Films forked over upwards of $200 million for Napoleon, a delightfully indulgent exploration of the notorious French emperor’s rise to military might and subsequent spiral into bitter defeat.   

Starring Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role, Scott’s film is really firing on all cylinders when it hones in on the contrast of Napoleon’s glorious victories in war and the disintegration of his personal life. His relationship with Lady Joséphine, played strikingly by Vanessa Kirby, is the foundation of his dynamic. This is also where the film suddenly becomes very funny at times. Napoleon’s dreadful insecurity and awkward tendencies manifest in such a way that are extremely amusing in a cinematic setting. Of course, these moments are not necessarily funny for the people in Napoleon’s life, but Joaquin Phoenix’s embodiment of this figure is guaranteed to elicit a chuckle or two from audience members. Consider quotes like, “Destiny has led me to this lamb chop,” delivered with an air of contemptuous egotism and utter sincerity. Or, a rageful outburst of, “You think you’re SO GREAT because you have BOATS!” These are notes of comedy gold. 

The action set pieces paint a portrait of Napoleon’s masterworks in battle strategy. The Siege of Toulon in 1793 and the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 were two crucial victories in his military career. The Toulon sequence is an ambush in the middle of the night, with which lesser filmmakers would struggle mightily. But, with Scott’s steady directorial hand and the cinematography from frequent collaborator Dariusz Wolski, it is beautifully orchestrated and coherently displays the integral geographical elements of this portside battle. Everything in the frame is lit precisely as it should be. This geographical and visual awareness is also applied in Scott’s direction of the Austerlitz set piece, which involves miles-wide landscapes of frozen lakes with thousands of soldiers and cavalrymen. Every stage of the battle plan is methodically outlined and effectively conveyed to the audience. Yet, in the midst of these great military schemes, Napoleon consistently showed a willingness to sacrifice overwhelming quantities of his own troops for the sake of his conquests. He saw himself as a transcendent leader, but his compassion for individual lives was severely lacking. Scott hits hard on this central theme in the theatrical cut of Napoleon, sitting pretty at over 150 minutes. A four-hour director’s cut to be released on Apple TV+ at an upcoming date (unspecified as of yet) is sure to further explore this void within Napoleon, from his time on the battlefield to his tumultuous personal life behind closed doors. The tagline on the theatrical poster for Napoleon reads, “He came from nothing. He conquered everything.” But how much of his humanity did he sacrifice along the way? Quite a lot, as Scott is intent on showing us.