In Ridley Scott’s epic Napoleon, no real animals were harmed during shooting, but animals–and people–are blown and sliced to bits by the dozen. The audience, thankfully, goes unharmed, as the movie serves as a satisfying piece of historical entertainment.
Napoleon’s greatest strengths are its numerous battle sequences, which are executed with precision and visual panache. As one might expect from Ridley Scott. Many of these lengthy sequences will take your breath away, or at least provide plenty of awe-inspiring entertainment.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as both young and old Bonaparte, and you’d be forgiven to tell the difference. As great of a performer as Phoenix is, he makes for an odd casting choice; it’s not just his age (and the 15-year age gap between him and Vanessa Kirby, who plays his wife Josephine, who in turn is supposed to be one year his senior) but the way his character is written. The Napoleon seen here doesn’t command attention in the way you’d expect, and he seems to rely more on emotion than the exceptional intelligence he was known for. Phoenix portrays the emperor–known as one of the greatest battle commanders of all time–as awkward, almost humorous at times, while Scott seems much more interested in the weird relationship between him and his empress than his leadership and political prowess.
No one was asking for a by-the-numbers historical retelling of Napoleon’s accomplishments, though Napoleon tries to juggle two parallel stories that don’t entirely mix–one about his key military and political achievements, the other about his confusing love life. Kirby sizzles in every scene she’s in, but she and Phoenix don’t exactly have sensational chemistry. The relationship material is a mixed bag, as if the two actors were given choices of strange encounters they could drum up just for shits and giggles. But there is also some really good material at play, too.
Though some of the “softer” stuff doesn’t fully gel, Napoleon as a whole is an entertaining and often gripping ode to the controversial leader. Though it’s 2.5-hours long, Scott maintains a brisk pace (perhaps skipping over some important stuff) and delivers spectacular battle action. It’s not perfect, but it’s more than good enough.
The animals may disagree.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.