Ridley Scott's new historical epic, "Napoleon," swings big; unfortunately for all of us, it also misses big.

When I was 24 years old, I woke up on a sidewalk in Greenville, N.C. Unaware of exactly where I was, I chalked it up to a great night out in my old college town, got in my car, and drove back home to get ready for the work week. When Napoleon Bonaparte was 24 years old, he was promoted to brigadier general in the French Army after a decisive victory at Toulon. This is more or less where our journey starts.

Visually, the film is stunning. With intricate detail, Arthur Max, a 3-time Oscar-nominated production designer, places you directly in late 18th Century France. The interior is meticulous; coated in the lavishness and opulent decor of the time. The exterior is real; evoking a sense of place that is palpable. The wardrobe is also a highlight; not only are they visually acceptable, but they also serve as an extension of the characters themselves. A small man with a scene-stealing hat; always present, symbolizing Napoleon’s power, ambition, and the era he sought to dominate.

Vanessa Kirby is fantastic. She delivers a performance of exceptional depth and nuance, standing out in a film opposite the somewhat subdued Joaquin Phoenix. As Josephine, Napoleon’s exceedingly complex and prodigiously charismatic partner, Kirby brings a multifaceted portrayal that is both powerful and deeply emotive. Her ability to navigate the intricacies of Josephine’s character — from her elegance and intelligence to her emotional resilience and vulnerability — adds much-needed depth to a film lacking just that. She is overwhelmingly magnetic, humanizing a historical figure and making her relatable to contemporary audiences.

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Unfortunately, that’s where the highlights end.

Ridley swings and misses

The film as a whole is not good. Napoleon is a tale of two films, neither of which are exceptional, both completely lacking in direction. One is a muddled, underdeveloped love story, neither plausible nor deep. The other, a war epic, lacking intensity and strategic depth. The battle scenes are aesthetically grand, yes. However, the visual spectacle is smothering, turning what should have been gripping, tactical showdowns into confusing and underwhelming spectacles.

Phoenix, on the other hand, feels completely out of sync. He completely misses the vigor and authority, not only associated with Napoleon but what we are also accustomed to seeing from Joaquin. It feels incredibly restrained, almost circumscribed to a set of parameters that in no way tell us anything about what makes this man tick. Overall, it was completely devoid of believability. The credibility and authenticity disappear whenever he opens his mouth. “I love France” carries no weight when it sounds like Joaquin Phoenix.

Ridley Scott completely misses, unable to bind the grandeur of the visuals with his amorphous narrative. The experience overall was jarringly disjointed. David Scarpa’s script is messy and at times incomprehensible, “Destiny has brought me this lamb chop.” The pacing is protracted, making a 2h 38m film feel more like the 4-hour director’s cut Ridley has been discussing in interviews. Maybe 4 hours can deliver the narrative he hoped to construct in this version. I will never know.

It is ambitious, yes, but ultimately it fails to captivate. It lacks longevity, something of which Ridley is a master. And, it never captures the weight of one of the more fascinating and complex characters in history.



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