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Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix Reteam to Bring a French Leader Back to Life in 'Napoleon'

"If you do not provoke me, you do not need to fear me."

Napoleon Bonaparte is a name most people know, even if they aren't exactly sure why. The French icon has become synonymous with military excellence and political success just as much as he's been mocked for 200 years due to his height. A controversial figure in France's history, Napoleon rose through the ranks during the French Revolution to go from Captain to General to eventually overthrow the monarchy and become Emperor of France.

Napoleon's rise to power, authoritarian rule, and marriage to Empress Joséphine are chronicled in Ridley Scott's newest historical drama aptly titled, "Napoleon." Joaquin Phoenix embodies the French revolutionary commander from 1794 through 1821, encompassing essential milestones in an epic military career that's still discussed to this day. Vanessa Kirby takes on the role of Napoleon's lover and subsequent wife, Joséphine, a cunning woman who will do anything to protect her husband and rule France with a soft fist so as not to upstage her spouse. Their union is not a match made in heaven initially, as both embarrass one another by cheating, but they come together to spare Napoleon's feelings.

Napoleon is depicted as weak and insecure when around Joséphine, but on the battlefield, he gains the respect and admiration of his fellow soldiers. A complicated man whose Short King stature is amplified by his absurdly large hat, Napoleon succeeds just as much as he fails. Unmatched for many years in several wars that sees France withstanding the advances of British, Austrian, and Russian forces, he leads with a calculated vision based on love of country. Infighting and obstacles within his administration are unwelcome surprises. Still, Napoleon ultimately proves victorious against Britain and the Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett)—all of this despite two exiles and 61 battles.

"Napoleon" is a typical historical epic devoid of new information and semi-dry performances. Vanessa Kirby takes on Joséphine's seductive and emotional nature, giving the film a bit of much-needed intensity and heart. The scenes between Napoleon and Joséphine feel rushed and lean heavily on their communication via love letters and narration while the former is away on the battlefield. For his part, Phoenix glides into the role of a temperamental emperor, losing his grip on what his country needs or wants, though his high-maintenance and insecure behavior shines through a performer well equipped to tell a leader's story. Napoleon is supposed to be in his 20s when he marries Joséphine, but oddly, the actor who personifies him is very much not. Distracting, to say the least.

But the film is sluggish, except for outstanding battle sequences that provide context to Napoleon's war mentality. Outside these scenes, the movie barely scratches the surface of the historical figure's life and internal drive. Napoleon and Joséphine's inability to have a child is glossed over within a few minutes of screentime, though this event leads to their divorce and Napoleon's supposed internal struggles. The two are soul mates and remain friends after their divorce even if Joséphine represents everything he wants: Love of country and a trusting supporter.

This is an old-school war film where absolutely no French is spoken, Britain is the enemy throughout, and yet every character is played by British and American actors. Yes, this concept has been done before in lesser films, but it's again distracting that there's not even a hint of "merci" or "oui" in the entire movie. "Napoleon" demonstrates how ruthless and undeniably important the main character is, but this alone does not make for an entertaining epic. The battles are significant in scope and certainly worth the extended runtime. Yet, the chemistry between the performers sorely lacks, and Napoleon's insatiable appetite for power, ego, and leadership isn't conveyed well.

Napoleon is a man many fear and others mock for being a thorn in the world's side. However, Ridley Scott's depiction of major events in the commander's life begs for something more. Dripping with political intrigue and unnervingly gory towards both horses and humans, "Napoleon" misses the mark of a man who took the world by storm.

Ticket Rating: 🎟🎟1/2


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