Napoleon: Ridley Scott’s huge film about small emperor gives diminishing returns

Tom Davidson
3 min readNov 26, 2023

“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.”

A line spoken by Herman Mankiewicz in Mank as he prepares to write Citizen Kane about the life of media magnate William Randolph Hearst.

Well, you cannot capture Napoleon Bonaparte’s entire life in 160 minutes either — and Ridley Scott’s newest film doesn’t give you the impression of it either.

Re-casting Napoleon as an immature buffoon off the battlefield falls flat

Instead this $200m behemoth is more a Wikipedia speed-run of all the important elements of the dictator’s life, simultaneously lightning fast and, unfortunately, pretty damn dull.

The battles are well staged by Scott (as expected) but they have no emotional weight and even less importance to the narrative of the movie. The film concentrates on Toulon, where Napoleon made his name, Austerlitz, his masterpiece, the march on Moscow, which showed his hubris and Waterloo, his epochal failure.

There’s even a brief sojourn to Egypt where Napoleon fires on the pyramids and studies a mummified pharaoh. (Neither of which is thought to actually have happened, but I digress.)

There’s no context given to the epic battles, no sense of the wider picture of 18th and 19th century Europe. They just happen because that’s how history happened.

There is not one battle or event through which the audience can get into the bones of the character. The march to Moscow and Napoleon’s humiliating retreat? Maybe 15 minutes of screentime.

We see the Reign of Terror in France and Napoleon’s ascension to dictator but it’s given little narrative weight and make no ostensible change to Napoleon himself. What is it that drives him?

David Scarpa’s script suggests that it’s Josephine, played by Vanessa Kirby. She is Napoleon’s philandering muse, who fails to give her husband an heir but nonetheless inspires him to greatness… or does she? The script isn’t clear about what it trying to say with her and with Napoleon’s childlike, immature obsession with her. They bicker and fight, badmouth each other, have some perfunctory sex (that she doesn’t seem to take pleasure in).

Kirby enjoys some genuine chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix’s Bonaparte but their scenes start to sag two hours in and the scatter-brain nature of the script, jumping from political intrigue to massive battles to petty arguments, from death and destruction to Python-esque humour, fails to hold any sort of interest or thematic through line.

Napoleon, as played by Phoenix, is a horny, immature, self-important dullard of a man, a charisma vacuum when not on the battlefield. Phoenix mumbles his way through the film (no one attempts as much as a French accent and his LA drawl is a persistent bugbear) and it’s never quite clear just why the French public rally around him.

Scarpa and Scott’s attempts to re-cast Napoleon as some sort of buffoon end up jarring significantly with the scenes showing his military prowess.

Phoenix does have some physical similarity to the older Napoleon but the 49-year-old is far too old to be playing the young general in his 20s and 30s, when he shot to fame thanks to his battlefield triumphs.

Maybe the 4hr+ version that is destined for Apple+ will cure some of the glaring flaws , but even as a truncated advert for a longer movie, Napoleon fails to deliver. Some stories are just too big, no matter the director.

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Tom Davidson

31-year-old journalist living in south westLondon trying my hand at some film writing as and when