'Napoleon' review: An insecure Joaquin Phoenix as emperor of France

Kristofer Purnell - Philstar.com
'Napoleon' review: An insecure Joaquin Phoenix as emperor of France
Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon
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MANILA, Philippines — Napoleon Bonaparte wrote himself into history books because of his military prowess, but that is not the only thing that director Ridley Scott wishes to show in his newest biopic, "Napoleon," with Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix portraying the titular character.

"Napoleon" shows Phoenix's character rise in power following the French Revolution, the many battles he won (and cost the lives of millions) in the Napoleonic wars, and his relationship with wife Josephine, portrayed by Academy Award nominee Vanessa Kirby.

The film reunites Scott and Phoenix over two decades since "Gladiator," which cemented the latter as a true star of the screen, and Scott's recent biopic movies, "All the Money in the World" and "House of Gucci," paved his way back to historical action like 2021's "The Last Duel."

It is no surprise that the best parts of "Napoleon" are the battle sequences, particularly the Siege of Toulon and the Battle of Austerlitz where Napoleon's wartime skills truly shined.

However, Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa aren't shedding the spotlight solely on the battlefield as a huge source material were the letters Napoleon shared with Josephine during and after their marriage.

Phoenix presents Napoleon without the uniform as an insecure man with an inferiority complex, eager for power and approval without a care in the world how he obtains them.

Related: Joaquin Phoenix on playing small 'petulant tyrant' Napoleon

Scarpa's script, however, does not give this captivating concept much justice, to the point where Kirby's Josephine is sidelined too many times, and there is a disconnect to Napoleon's military performance.

Phoenix and Kirby are excellent actors; however, the latter is underutilized, and Phoenix's interesting take settled too much on the middle ground between camp and seriousness when a focus on either would have worked better for the film. 

The actor deserves some credit when he commits to the theatricality of his Napoleon when he blurts out lines like "Destiny brought me this lamb chop" and "You think you're so great just because you have boats!"

While the fight scenes were fascinating to see, they often blend together because of dullish gray cinematography by an often reliable Dariusz Wolski that hides the well-designed costumes and production. The musical score of Martin Phipps lends to such onscreen perplexity.

"Napoleon" is by no means a flop because Scott is attempting a fresh look at such a famous figure who, at one point, was the point of intrigue for the late Stanley Kubrick.

Perhaps a proper point of focus was needed for Scott and Scarpa because Phoenix and Kirby would surely deliver any assignment given, but there is no doubt history will never forget the kind of man Napoleon was.

"Napoleon" premieres in Philippine cinemas on November 29.

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