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Film Review: NAPOLEON (2023): Joaquin Phoenix is Solid in Ridley Scott’s Expertly Crafted Historical Epic

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Vanessa Kirby Joaquin Phoenix Napoleon

Napoleon Review

Napoleon (2023) Film Review, a movie directed by Ridley Scott, written by David Scarpa and starring Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Rupert Everett, Mark Bonnar, Paul Rhys, Ben Miles, Riana Duce, Ludivine Sagnier, Edouard Philipponnat, Miles Jupp, Scott Handy, Youssef Kerkour, John Hollingworth, Abubakar Salim, Thom Ashley, Jannis Niewohner and Julian Rhind-Tutt.

Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is a film of epic scope that zeroes in on the reign of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon in a unique way that doesn’t demand that the audience like him or hate him. Phoenix plays the role in a matter-of-fact way that can feel cold at times but certainly suits the complex themes found in Scott’s masterfully made picture. Phoenix has had some excellent performances in the past but this role may be one of his most nuanced ones to date as the part is not as showy as his previous ones in films like Walk the Line or Joker. Since Phoenix doesn’t have a stand-out scene of grandiose proportions, that fact could cost him an Oscar nod but it would be a shame to see him snubbed since his work is of the highest caliber.

This film opens with the beheading of a key historical female figure and concludes with some very intense battle scenes that are among the best action sequences you will see at the movies this year. Between the authentic romance conveyed between Napoleon and his wife, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), and the detailed overview of the history the film covers, Scott has made a film that deserves to be honored with several technical nominations come Oscar time.

Napoleon is at its most dramatically compelling in the scenes between Napoleon and Josephine who had a very interesting relationship together which was undermined by the fact that Josephine couldn’t have a child who would serve as a heir to Napoleon. Scott’s movie features raw love scenes that aren’t the least bit romantic in many circumstances except for the one where Napoleon crawls under the dinner table to reach Josephine to engage in sex with her. Phoenix and Kirby seem well-matched as performers to convey the type of relationship that their characters come to develop during the course of the picture.

Josephine cheats on Napoleon with the young Hippolyte Charles (Jannis Niewohner) while Napoleon is off in Egypt. This understandably angers Napoleon upon receipt of the news. When Napoleon officially become Emperor, he displays his new crown to a crowd of overseers in a memorable scene. Napoleon seems to be full of hubris but his marriage continues to somewhat crumble due to the lack of Josephine’s ability to have a child. Napoleon seeks a younger woman and eventually has a son who he brings back to Josephine.

The romance between Josephine and Napoleon is full of realism that manifests itself through the loving but somewhat distanced interaction between the characters. When they’re not having sex, they seem to care for one another but a lot of their time away from each other leads to a lot of passionate letter writing by Napoleon. At one point, Napoleon is exiled and yearns to see Josephine again but as she falls into sickness, could it be too late for him to see her again?

Rupert Everett co-stars in the film as the Duke of Wellington who comes to power during Napoleon’s exile and Everett gives a towering performance in a movie that exists, at given intervals, for its intense action scenes. As the Duke and Napoleon confront one another at the end, there is genuine tension on-screen that will undoubtedly captivate the audience. There are a number of battle scenes here that rival some of the best sequences of this kind ever filmed. Scott’s direction is first-rate in regards to his handling of these scenes and the movie especially has that special kind of authenticity during its focus on the Battle of Austerlitz.

Audiences may want to see the film for its few sex scenes in addition to its more violent ones. That’s because Kirby and Phoenix create some steamy romance that is sexy and quite believable for the time period the film covers as well as the nature of the relationship Napoleon and Josephine pursued together. Kirby is sensational when she starts taking charge in the relationship, reminding Napoleon who really has the power in their unconventional union. Napoleon is played by Phoenix as a man with many sexual urges but at the end of the day, his heart belongs to Josephine regardless of who he had or has sex with.

Phoenix has always been one of Hollywood’s most reliable performers and commands our attention in a role that doesn’t ask the audience to like him–not in the least. If anything, the notes at the film’s ending help suggest we may want to hate him for the deaths he caused throughout the battles he participated in. But these notes also remind us he loved Josephine and her name was one of the last words he spoke.

Ridley Scott is a master in the craft of film-making and while Napoleon is not one of the best films of the year, it’s, perhaps, one of the five most well-crafted pictures of 2023. It would nice to see Scott get an Oscar nomination for his tremendous work on this film. Every scene of this picture is well-suited to the big screen and that is where it should be seen.

Napoleon may leave audiences questioning the choices made in the life of Napoleon Bonaparte but, surprisingly, the film could also leave some viewers deeply moved in its exploration of the love that motivated him throughout his journey in life. On that count, Phoenix and Kirby are two masters of their craft who don’t disappoint in their very distinct characterizations in Scott’s well made, 158-minute historical epic, Napoleon.

Rating: 8.5/10

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