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Critics have given their verdicts for Ridley Scott’s latest epic Napoleon, with generally favourable reviews across the board.
The historical drama stars Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role as Napoleon Bonaparte, the military mastermind and Emperor of France. It spans 32 years from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to Napoleon’s death on St Helena in 1821, and explores significant battles as well as the romantic turmoil with his wife Joséphine de Beauharnais.
Many have praised director Scott for crafting the kind of bombastic spectacle favoured in late ’50s and early ’60s Hollywood, noting in particular the technical and theatrical skill enacted for the sweeping, bloody battle scenes. On the flip side, critics have said that the film fails in digging deep enough into the psychology of a war tyrant and his love affair.
Variety‘s Peter Debruge celebrated Scott’s visual prowess, writing of the battle scenes in Toulon: “It’s not often that a filmmaker manages to deliver an image of war that audiences haven’t seen before, and this early example sets a high bar.”
“From the master of the modern epic, comes an undeniably impressive technical achievement,” he wrote elsewhere, before noting Phoenix’s “oddly anti-charismatic” portrayal of the military tactician.
Debruge concluded that Napoleon “seems less enamoured with its subject than any previous telling of his exploits, referencing the 3 million lives lost under his campaigns”, and that Scott’s “desire to re-create some of history’s most notorious conflicts” means that “psychology is sacrificed for the sake of spectacle”.
The Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin praised in a four-star review Scott’s “magnificently hewn slab of dad cinema” with its lead actor playing Napoleon with “startling blunt-force charisma”. Like with Empire critic Catherine Bray, Collin noted a perhaps unintentionally funny tone to the film (“Phoenix’s sore-thumb manner makes his loopier lines land well”). Bray wrote: “It would be going too far to describe it absolutely as a comedy, but in David Scarpa’s script, Scott’s direction, the rhythm of the editing by Claire Simpson and Sam Restivo, and in Joaquin Phoenix’s deadpan performance, the impulse to offset and amuse is strong.”
Peter Bradshaw, critic for The Guardian, was particularly taken with Phoenix’s central portrayal. “But for Phoenix he is the arch satirist and grinning mastermind, the outsider, the brilliant observer and exploiter of other people’s weaknesses, the proto-capitalist entrepreneur, grabbing power, boosting confidence, bolstering the printed paper money. Later people might be nicknamed the Napoleon of Crime, but Phoenix’s Napoleon is already that,” he wrote.
Elsewhere in his five-star review he wrote that Scott doesn’t “detain the audience with metaphysical meaning” and appeared in favour of the filmmaker deciding not to “withhold the old-fashioned pleasures of spectacle and excitement”.
Others have highlighted that the film suffers for its scale. “But for all its brawn and atmosphere and robustly choreographed combat, this is a distended historical tapestry too sprawling to remain compelling,” The Hollywood Reporter‘s David Rooney wrote, “particularly when its focus veers away from the central couple.”
The BBC‘s Nicholas Barber made similar observations to others about the film’s unexpected, “sometimes very funny vignettes” and its lack of excavation of the characters’ psyches.
Barber praised Phoenix’s “enjoyable” take on the military mastermind (“Napoleon is relaxed to the point of sleepiness when he’s on the battlefield, a petulant brat in meetings, and a tongue-tied arrested adolescent where women are concerned”). He added, with some negative criticism: “Still, the film doesn’t reveal why he is so deeply in love with Joséphine, or whether she is in love with him at all.”
“But [the film],” Barber continued, “lacks insights into who Napoleon is or what he wants, where he comes from or why he is such a success. Nor does it delve below the surface of the geopolitics around him. It is never clear why he is fighting a particular battle or signing a particular treaty, and because it isn’t clear, it is difficult to care about their outcomes.”
However, Scott’s epic, “scene by scene”, is a “proper old-fashioned historical epic” and is “terrific fun”.
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The Independent‘s Clarisse Loughrey commended Scott’s “formidable efficiency in visual language”.
“Napoleon is a traditional, historical epic rendered in Scott’s own brawny, cannily modern style. David Scarpa’s script matches those ambitions, though it’s at its weakest when it bends to narrative convenience,” she added.
Elsewhere in her four-star review Loughrey wrote that Scott “lays much of Napoleon’s impenetrable psychology at the feet of his Empress, Joséphine de Beauharnais, brilliantly rendered by Vanessa Kirby as haughty, clever, and ingeniously manipulative.
“Nothing about their courtship is romantic, but it is perversely watchable – a romance between two sociopaths committed to the performance of love. The sex they have is brief, vulgar, and absurd. Napoleon’s idea of seduction is to whinny and stamp his feet like a horse.”
IndieWire‘s Dabid Elrich noted in his B- scoring that Napoleon is a movie that takes on its star’s “outsized ambitions” to its detriment; ambitions that “have been long subsumed by a film so lost in its epic sweep”.
He, too, wrote that the “chemistry-free” sex scenes between Napoleon and Joséphine that are “played for laughs” are “enough to make you wish the movie would more fully commit to the psychosexual power games”.
Elsewhere, however, he applauded Scott’s “portrait of the most pathetic of all great men… and it excels — when it excels — because it’s the rare historical epic that isn’t afraid to be embarrassed for its subject.”
Meanwhile, a new scene from the upcoming movie has been shared – watch it here.
Napoleon is released in cinemas from November 22, with a four-hour director’s cut set to arrive on Apple TV+ at a later date. The theatrical edit spans 157 minutes.