Napoleon review: Joaquin Phoenix plays for laughs in Ridley Scott's brutal epic

The film premieres in cinemas on Wednesday, 22 November

Napoleon (Apple TV+)
Napoleon stars Joaquin Phoenix as the titular character (Apple TV+)
  • 🎞️ When is Napoleon out in cinemas: 22 November, 2023

  • ⭐️ Our rating: 4/5

  • 🎭 Who's in it? Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Rupert Everett.

  • 👍 What we liked: The battle sequences are intense and powerful thanks to Ridley Scott's sharp vision, Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal of Napoleon.

  • 👎 What we didn't: The film jumps around a lot over the course of Napoleon's life meaning anyone with less knowledge of the historical figure may struggle to keep track.

  • 📖 What's it about? Napoleon goes from lowly soldier to Emperor of France in this epic tale of the historical figure's rise to power, which also follows his toxic romance with wife Josephine.

Napoleon Bonaparte, it's a name that everyone recognises in some way — whether that's as a tyrant, a genius on the battlefield, or a megalomaniac dictator.

Ridley Scott is ready to share his thoughts on the former emperor of France in this sweeping epic starring Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby that charts Napoleon's rise to power, and juxtaposes it with his romance with wife Josephine.

If anyone was hoping to watch a historically accurate examination on Napoleon's life, well perhaps think again. Scott isn't concerned about it and neither should the audience, quite frankly, because this isn't about giving viewers a history lesson it's about entertaining them — and the film certainly delivers on that.

Napoleon (Apple TV+)
The film has epic battle scenes that are undoubtedly the highlight of the film (Apple TV+)

Scott has an astounding ability to bring Napoleon's war tactics to life, scenes depicting the battlefield during the French invasion of Russia in 1812 are a particular highlight for how shocking and visually impressive it is, for example, even if it is brutal to behold.

Read more: Ridley Scott Blasts French Critics Over Negative “Napoleon” Reviews: 'The French Don't Even Like Themselves' (People, 3-min read)

The filmmaker lends his sharp eye for breathtaking visuals in all of the film's battles, and if you can forgive him a scene showing Napoleon sending a cannon ball to the pyramids then you're sure to be enthralled by this historical blockbuster.

While it is visually breathtaking, Napoleon can be prove a slightly challenging watch for anyone not fully aware of the intricacies of the leader's rise to power. The film jumps around a lot over the course of its runtime — which clocks in at 2 hours and 38 minutes— in order to cover the full scope of Napoleon's life.

Napoleon (Apple TV+)
Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby play out the toxic relationship between Napoleon and his wife Josephine (Apple TV+)

It is by necessity that the film speeds through decades of the leader's rule, but it makes it hard to keep track of the people around Napoleon, or even how and why he got to the top of the French hierarchy in the first place. As mentioned, though, Scott's film is meant to be an epic blockbuster, not a history lesson.

Another aspect of the narrative that makes it seem difficult to believe Napoleon became the dominating figure of the 19th century is the way in which the film, and Phoenix, depicts him. Phoenix struts around the stage with an air of arrogance as Napoleon and he acts like a petulant child throughout — at one moment he will break down into a fit of jealous rage and in the next he is emotional and cavalier.

Read more: Everything you need to know about Napoleon

Of course, the term "Napoleon complex" had to come from somewhere, and Scott and Phoenix seem intent on highlighting this side of him to dispel any notion that he might have been a charismatic leader. Often Napoleon is unintentionally comedic, drawing laughs from the audience because of his ridiculous nature and even more ridiculous comments — which are usually aimed at Josephine who is too regularly the focus of his ire.

Napoleon (Apple TV+)
Napoleon will challenge your view of him whilst still keeping you hooked (Apple TV+)

This brings us to the romance at the heart of the film, or at least the perceived love story between Napoleon and Josephine that is shown here as a toxic relationship in which neither seems to likes the other that much but are incapable of letting each other go.

Phoenix and Kirby have little in the way of chemistry but this seems entirely the point, these are two people who are ill suited for one another but who are intent on staying together regardless. Both actors portray their characters with impressive vigour and hold their own in their regular battle of words, so much so it's hard not to be swept up by it all.

Napoleon is a historical epic of a different kind, one that feels unique to Scott and his vision of the French ruler that will challenge your view of him whilst still keeping you hooked. You can almost feel the director reaching out and asking audiences: 'Are you not entertained?' Yes, yes we are.

Napoleon is released in cinemas on Wednesday, 22 November, and it will be made available to stream on Apple TV+ at a later date.

Watch the trailer for Napoleon: