Napoleon – Review

Worth seeing: for Joaquin Phoenix's complex turn as the narcissistic emperor and the epic scale of the battle scenes
Director:Ridley Scott
Featuring:Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Ben Miles, Edouard Philipponnat, Ian McNeice, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Kevin Eldon, Ludivine Sagnier, Mark Bonnar, Miles Jupp, Paul Rhys, Phil Cornwell, Rupert Everett, Sam Troughton, Sinéad Cusack, Tahar Rahim
Length:157 minutes
Country:UK, US
Released:22nd November 2023


At the age of 23, Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) is already a rising star in the French army, but leading his men to victory at the Siege of Toulon sends his reputation rocketing higher.

Battle by battle, he climbs higher up the ranks and is mixing in ever more influential circles.

He snatches every opportunity to take more and more power until the leadership of his country is within his grasp.

As he nears the top of the tree, he marries Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), keen to ensure that when he finally takes control of the France – and its empire – he has an heir to take over from him.


This isn’t the first time Joaquin Phoenix has played an emperor for Sir Ridley Scott; 23 years after portraying the Roman Emperor Commodus in Gladiator, he takes on the title role in Sir Ridley’s take on the infamous French emperor and military leader.

It’s essentially a film of three acts: a lowly soldier seeks status; a powerful leader seeks an heir; history has other ideas.

Against the backdrop of a series of battles – we see a handful of the sixty in which Napoleon led his men in combat – we watch a Corsican artillery commander rise to become the ruler of an Empire and fall to see out his final days in ignominy and solitude on a remote island.

From a sharp script from David Scarpa, Sir Ridley delivers a far funnier historical epic than you might expect, aided by a multi-layered performance from Joaquin Phoenix, as a man whose narcissism leaves him one step short of a dictator. Vanessa Kirby, as Josephine, also has some depth, but there’s little effort to fill out any of the other characters; even some of the top billed actors have no more than a handful of lines throughout a film that stretches more than 2 and a half hours – the director himself insists that what he calls “bum ache” doesn’t kick in until 3 hours.

There’ve been questions about the accuracy of certain elements of the narrative but it’s notable that unlike many other heads of state, perhaps through a compulsion to be in control, the emperor himself gave orders from the front-line; at the Battle of Waterloo, for example, he comes face-to-face not with King George III but with the Rupert Everett’s Duke of Wellington.

The historical drama is lifted by Sir Ridley’s reliable visual flair, as he brings battles to life everywhere from Egypt’s desert to the frozen approach to Moscow.

It’s spectacular – and funny – but not particularly emotionally engaging or intellectually rewarding.