Napoleon is a 2023 epic historical drama film by Ridley Scott that presents an evocative portrait of Napoleon’s ambition, desire, and the irrevocable cost of his unfulfilled yearning for his one true love, Joséphine.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Rupert Everett, Mark Bonnar
Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is a graceful, unflinching, and entertaining story of history, ambition, and intimate passion, sculpted meticulously within its grand, 157-minute runtime that mirrors the unrelenting drive, resilience, and sheer force of will at the heart of its titular character.
Written by David Scarpa, Napoleon magnificently captures the relentless ambition of Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) and his tumultuous ascent to emperor, whilst entwining it seamlessly with the raw, tempestuous love shared with Empress Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) and his unavoidable fetishizing of artillery on the battlefield.
Led by the captivating performances of Phoenix and Kirby, the film manages to trim the epic narrative into a lean juggernaut of cinema that tactfully balances the brutality of warfare, the relentless pursuit of power, and the all-consuming love shared between these two towering figures of history.
At its core, Napoleon is a testament to the art of cinematic storytelling that respects brevity without sacrificing depth. Scott avoids lengthy dialogues and overindulgent drama, instead opting to provide a rough, but colourful, sketching of Napoleon’s journey without bogging down the film’s pace throughout its potentially laborious runtime.
The narrative immediately dives into strategically navigating pivotal moments in Napoleon’s military life, avoiding unnecessary detours that might impede the film’s momentum. This precision in storytelling ensures the audience are both immediately and continually immersed in the experience, beautifully capturing the rise and fall of a man whose raw ambition redefined history.
What distinguishes Napoleon as an epic historical drama is its judicious treatment of warfare. Unlike the absolute nightmare fuel of recent additions like 1917 and All Quiet on The Western Front, the film elegantly portrays the gruesome reality of his battles, marked by occasionally unflinching violence and horror that manages to tactfully restrain from glorifying or dwelling excessively on the brutality and bloodshed.
Scott uses these horrific sequences sparingly, ensuring they serve the narrative without overshadowing the characters or the story’s essence, in what feels like a deliberate choice to accentuate the strategic genius of Napoleon’s military campaigns instead of indulging in the reality of their gratuitous and traumatising violence.
Central to the film’s narrative success are the impeccable performances delivered by Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby. Phoenix embodies Napoleon with a magnetic, reserved, and occasionally humorous charisma, balanced against an almost inhuman desire for victory, portraying both his commanding presence on the battlefield and his unravelling psychosexual vulnerabilities in the pursuit of power.
Vanessa Kirby is instantly mesmerising as Empress Joséphine, infusing her character with an exquisite and captivating blend of grace, resilience, and passion. Their chemistry on screen is as immediate and ferocious as the film’s battles, painting a vivid portrait of a relationship that violently churns between intense love and the strains of power and ambition.
Although momentarily questionable, the film’s absence of forced accents ultimately allows the impressive supporting ensemble cast to channel the essence of their characters without resorting to jarring theatricality. This deliberate choice ultimately contributes to the authenticity and depth of the performances as a whole, anchoring the characters in a more relatable and human sphere while restricting the mental gymnastics required of the audience to engage with the film’s rich portrayal of history.
Martin Phipps’ brilliant musical score begins to weave itself prominently throughout the second and third acts of the film, a masterful composition that accentuates the emotional nuances of both the battles and the characters’ personal struggles. The evocative music mirrors the intensity of Napoleon’s victories, elevating pivotal moments on the battlefield and building into the film’s closing moments.
Despite the blunt-force grandeur of its many (a humble six of Napoleon’s total 81) battles, it’s the turbulent and obsessive love between Napoleon and Joséphine that serves as the emotional core of the film, portraying it as a force that both fuels Napoleon’s ambition and torments his soul, underscoring the price paid for pursuing absolute power.
Within these battles, we see another of Napoleon’s great loves: artillery. One of the defining elements in Napoleon’s military campaigns was his ardent affection for cannons, presented here in such continual detail that it’s a surprise Joséphine didn’t find him stroking one to sleep in his Emperor’s bed chamber. Napoleon doesn’t merely depict these artillery pieces as instruments of destruction, but as pivotal tools that shaped the landscape of warfare and were instrumental in his rise to power.
Each cannon shot echoes with a resounding impact, symbolising not just the might of military power but also the brilliance and calculation behind Napoleon’s tactical genius. Scott beautifully weaves these cannon-infused sequences into the fabric of the film, showcasing the mesmerising yet chilling beauty of warfare while underscoring the calculated precision that marked each of Napoleon’s successive conquests.
In a narrative embroidered with conquests and conflicts, Napoleon transcends the mere retelling of historical events, delving into the intricate depths of the human condition. Napoleon’s conquests, whether on the battlefield or within the chambers of the heart, mirror his relentless, tyrannical quest for supremacy. He sought to conquer not just lands but his own heart and that of his great love, waging a battle for Joséphine’s affection that ultimately consumed them both.
Napoleon is not merely another grand historical epic, but also a haunting love letter to the complexities of human desire and the inescapable tragedy of unattainable love, weaving a lean, mean, and entertaining narrative that explores the destructive duality of both Napoleon’s desire to conquer his inner passion and his insatiable passion for global conquest.
Like the thunderous reverberation of its cannon fetish, Napoleon presents an epic, entertaining legacy that echoes through history to this day, a testament to the human spirit’s relentless pursuit of glory, entwined forever with the tragic ache of an indomitable and unattainable love.
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