Napoleon review: A hugely entertaining portrait that leaves history in the past

Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby shine in Ridley Scott’s breathless rollick

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Director: Ridley Scott
Cert: 15A
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Rupert Everett, Edouard Philipponnat, Catherine Walker, Ludivine Sagnier, Paul Rhys
Running Time: 2 hrs 37 mins

There already has been much muttering about historical inaccuracies in Ridley Scott’s breathless rollick through the life of Corsica’s own Alexander. He didn’t fire on the pyramids. He wasn’t present at Marie Antoinette’s execution. He did not, when general, participate in cavalry charges. I will give the pedants that last one. This twitchy, neurotic, self-deluded construct – a character derived from but not wholly obedient to history – is comfortable in the first scenarios. But generals don’t do that.

Not that it matters. God help Abel Gance if academic not-Twitter had been around when he put his triumphant version before the world in 1927. Joaquin Phoenix makes the character his own in a performance much at home to the comic. The coup d’état that brings our hero to power is shot in the style of Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head. The film gets close to the lubricious shagger revealed in Napoleon’s letters, allowing the sex scenes with Josephine (a terrific Vanessa Kirby) to take on the quality of hurried post-pints revelry. Let us just say coitus more ferarum is in greater evidence than usual in such things and move on. This is no Pepé Le Pew.

At times the cavalier approach does grate a little. Phoenix looks far too old during the earliest skirmishes. Just a smidgen on Napoleon’s breathtaking domestic reforms would be nice. Some sense of the Corsican’s foreignness? But this remains a hugely entertaining portrait in the bandes dessinées style. It is surely no coincidence that Scott peoples the film with British comedians. Miles Jupp is the emperor of Austria. Kevin Eldon is the protagonist’s doctor. Blink and you’ll miss (as, indeed, I did) Phil Cornwall playing an executioner. “Get a life!” Scott remarked of unconvinced historians.

The picture’s main focus is from the 1790s to the 1810s. We see Napoleon triumphing at the siege of Toulon, proving ruthless with the mob in Paris, manoeuvring himself into power, crowning himself emperor, triumphing at Austerlitz, failing in Russia, returning at Waterloo, declining on Saint Helena. It hardly needs to be said that the 2½ hours progress at a fair lick. Indeed, at times the film plays like an enormous trailer for the four-hour version rumoured to be heading towards Apple TV+. That breathlessness is most evident in the excellent Russian sequences. The film has already bathed us in much viscera, but the snatched images of French men nailed bloodily to trees (suggesting, ironically, Goya’s take on Napoleon’s victims in Spain) points to a larger grand guignol still sitting on Scott’s hard disks.


One can’t help but be equivocal about how such epics now look. Computer-generated imagery allows a completer picture of Waterloo than was possible when you had to give every actor a packed lunch. But the grey-blue that covers everything is monotonous. The weightlessness of the images denies empathy. Nothing here remotely compares with the vividness Kubrick found for his considerably less complex combat sequences in Barry Lyndon. Maybe only Christopher Nolan could now find the money to stage such scenes.

Oh well. We are where we are. Now 85, Scott again proves there is nobody so efficient at pressing contemporary technology to the limits. He also draws heroic performances from fleshy human beings. Whereas Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger, both odd men in their ways, looked to be aping eccentricity in the role, Phoenix, for all the film’s broadness, gets at an utterly believable class of neurosis. Kirby carries a sadness that speaks to earlier outrages never fully expressed. Special mention should be given to the veteran Paul Rhys – also excellent as the butler in Saltburn – who makes something notably oleaginous of the shifty diplomat Talleyrand. “A man bent on peace at any cost,” he says of Napoleon. An implied threat that still has resonances today.

Napoleon opens in cinemas on Wednesday, November 22nd

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist