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Ridley Scott stages exciting epic battles in Napoleon but he fails to build a compelling movie around them, mostly because he sees the characters as mere pawns amid the spectacle.

Even at age 86 there are few directors with as good an eye for epic entertainment as Ridley Scott, something he proves again with the handsomely staged battles of Austerlitz, Borodino and Waterloo in Napoleon. Even so, these are mostly hollow spectacles because you never truly care about the characters.

Ostentatiously built around Napoleon's famed romance with Joséphine de Beauharnais, the love of his life, the picture simply doesn't invest enough in their ambitions, flaws and desires. Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa are too much in a rush to get to the next battle, it appears.

Napoleon thus plays more like a greatest hits album than a compelling concept album and, while never not entertaining, is a disappointing movie because of it. Not even the glorious production design can gloss over that fatal flaw, nor can the performances of the cast.

Joaquin Phoenix isn't necessarily on bad form as the French emperor, but he seems to be acting in a different movie altogether, while a one-note Vanessa Kirby is severely hampered by a script that fails to give insight in what drove Joséphine. Rupert Everett has a lot of campy fun with the Duke of Wellington though.

Add lots of historical inaccuracies and an indecision to portray Napoleon as either a hero or a villain and you're left with an epic that has the scale but lacks the intrigue or intimacy a subject like this needs and deserves.

release: 2023

director: Ridley Scott

starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Rupert Everett


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