Movie review: 'Napoleon' delivers epic spectacle, skewers Bonaparte

Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon Bonaparte in "Napoleon." Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures
1 of 5 | Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon Bonaparte in "Napoleon." Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 14 (UPI) -- Seeing Ridley Scott orchestrate historical events is the selling point of Napoleon, in theaters Nov. 22. The battles of Napoleon Bonaparte's life unfold in lavish spectacle.

The film follows Bonaparte's (Joaquin Phoenix) career from 1789 when he was a general in the French Revolution to his 1821 death in exile at St. Helena. In between military campaigns, Bonaparte marries Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) and struggles to produce an heir.


The battles of Bonaparte's career cover a variety of environments. There is the 1793 Siege of Toulon overtaking a castle at night and destroying the Royalist naval fleet.

Campaigns in Egypt take place in the desert. The Russian campaign occurs in the frozen snow.

These battles truly appear as if the production hired hundreds of horsemen and even more soldiers to play the vast regiments of opposing armies. Perhaps digital horses are more convincing than ever, but there is clearly a base of authentic footage of staged combat.

Cannon fire has never been as graphic as in Napoleon. Many movies showed cannons firing but Scott shows just how cannonballs destroy horses and soldiers when they impact.


When Bonaparte turns his attention to Josephine, the film conveys how awkward their courtship was. Bonaparte is hardly seductive. He's more like a schoolboy begging for attention.

Bonaparte quickly finds out that Josephine is being unfaithful. Their significant arguments about bearing children and adultery ultimately become petty jabs at each other's shortcomings.

Phoenix commits to the portrayal of Bonaparte as a petulant child throwing tantrums. Even his claims of military genius are narcissistic lies that can often be disproven by observers, yet he doubles down on them.

The film delights in undercutting Bonaparte's bravado at every turn. For example, even when he claims the Russian throne, it's caked with bird poop with pigeons providing a fresh supply overhead.

While the script by David Scarpa and Scott's production take an irreverent tone towards Bonaparte's presumed accomplishments, they also highlight the thousands of French and allied soldiers who died.

It is fun to see a historical figure portrayed as both an epic conqueror and a buffoon simultaneously, but ultimately millions of people died for his ego campaign.

In that regard, Napoleon stands out from Scott's more straightforward historical epics. It has ample amounts of epic scale but also manages to roast its subject, in a classy way.


Napoleon will stream on Apple TV+ after its theatrical run.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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