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‘Napoleon’ Review: Historically Inaccurate, But Still Great


Ridley Scott has always been a very interesting director. He’s eighty-six years old, and has been making nonstop films since 1977 spanning countless genres, including horror, war, fantasy, sci-fi, romantic comedy, biopics, and much more. He seems to finish one project and immediately move onto the next; it’s very respectable how often he’s able to put out quality movies, but it does make it easy to forget one every now and then. I’ve seen around ten of Scott’s films, which I would consider to be a decent amount for one director; but, in comparison to his insane number of twenty-eight feature-length directorial efforts, it seems like nothing. I’ve seen the majority of Scott’s must-watches, including his Alien films, Gladiator, and Blade Runner, and enjoyed all of them quite a bit. He’s one of the most recognizable directors of all time, despite the fact that a large amount of his projects are somewhat unknown and generally considered to be mediocre or forgettable. So, when I learned of his upcoming biopic depicting the life of infamous dictator Napoleon Bonaparte, and the casting of Joaquin Phoenix as the titular character, I was curious. Many were heavily anticipating this film, much more than I was. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to watch it, but my excitement wasn’t near the level of others. So, imagine my surprise when I thoroughly enjoyed Napoleon, even after most claimed it to be mediocre.

The most common criticism seems to be the many laughably historically inaccurate moments. While I can understand this complaint to an extent, it’s not something I tend to care about when it comes to a Ridley Scott movie. This is the guy who made Gladiator; do you think he’s going to care about what’s accurate? Some very entertaining recent interviews with Scott just further prove this point. Scott simply directs scripts that someone else writes- he’s not a writer, and he never has been. He uses his artistic vision to turn these scripts into Ridley Scott movies, not historically accurate biopics. Apparently, only about 38 minutes of Napoleon are in any way realistic, but that doesn’t really matter. This is not meant to be an in-depth history about the Napoleonic wars; it’s meant to be a character study about the type of dictator Napoleon was. Besides, how accurate are biopics in general? Probably every one that you could think of took at least a few creative liberties that strayed away from the true story. Look at Oppenheimer– while it is largely factual, it’s not completely faithful to true events, and that’s perfectly fine. The point is, if the film had been made with the intention of being accurate, this would all be very valid. However, it wasn’t, and it’s important to remember this while watching Napoleon. If you watch the film with this mindset, I can almost guarantee that the aspects that make it special will be much clearer.

While there’s a lot to praise here, my favorite moments in the film were the easily the battles. The sense of scale and grandeur Scott brings to events such as the battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo make for some truly incredible war moments. What really brought these battles to life is the remarkable sound design; the intense violence works with the yelling of troops and the loud booms of cannons and mortars to drive home the true brutality of these events. It’s probably the most impressive sound I’ve experienced in a 2023 film, potentially being topped by Oppenheimer. These moments are meant to display Napoleon’s talent as a war general and strategist, which is very ironic, as the rest of the film makes him out to be a complete moron. His love life is openly mocked in French newspapers, dozes off while discussing urgent political topics, and, in my favorite display of his stupidity, yells “you think you’re so great because you have boats!” in retort to a British ambassador.

In addition to the sound design and editing, I was stunned by the production and costume design of Napoleon. The beautifully constructed sets transport you straight into the time period, showing off many meticulously detailed rooms and environments. I appreciated the clear amount of effort that went into the costume design of the film; everything from Josephine’s decadent dresses to Napoleon’s comically large hat add a lot to the setting of late 18th / early 19th century France. Due to the film’s general reception, I doubt that we’ll see any best picture nominations for this one, but I’d be surprised if the Academy didn’t give it some recognition for the categories I’ve discussed, as well as the performances. Vanessa Kirby gives a brilliant portrayal of Josephine Bonaparte, and completely steals every scene she’s in. I wasn’t familiar with her work outside of the Mission: Impossible films, but I’d definitely be interested in whatever projects she chooses to do next. The way she interacts with Napoleon is often very funny, as we watch this arrogant, self-centered fool of a man try to show Josephine how much he loves her. And, to no one’s surprise, Joaquin Phoenix is a fantastic Napoleon. Phoenix has time and again proven himself to me as one of the best actors we have at the moment, and he’s had a particularly good year. I’ve heard some say that he was a little dry in this film, and I really couldn’t disagree more. He gives a great Social Network or Glass Onion-type performance, where the actor is portraying somebody who, while good at their job, is a complete loser in reality, and one of the most arrogant characters you’ll ever see.

I would definitely recommend walking into Napoleon with an open mind. I wasn’t sure what to think about it going in, as most of the reactions I had seen weren’t great, but I trust Ridley Scott, and the trailers were promising. I ended up enjoying the film a lot for what it is, and respected the clear amount of work that went into it. Scott has stated that a four-hour cut exists, much like the original 1927 film, which is completely silent with a runtime of five and a half hours (which a team of film historians spent twelve years and three million dollars restoring to its original seven hours). I would be genuinely interested in watching this cut at some point, as I did feel that couple of areas could have been expanded upon a little more. It’s worth checking this out yourself to form your own opinion of the film; I ended up liking it significantly more than I thought I would, and am looking forward to revisiting it at some point in the future. At the moment, I’d give Ridley Scott’s Napoleon a solid 8/10.

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