Napoleon Breaks the Rules of What We Expect From a Historical Epic

Ridley Scott’s latest film is a lot of things, but conventional isn’t one of them.

Vanessa Kirby as Josephine and Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon in 'Napoleon'
Apple Original Films/Sony Pictures

For all of its epic battle scenes and moments of awe-inspiring bloodshed, Napoleon isn’t the movie many expected it to be. While its scale and narrative ambitions are similar to Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, the film offers a very different look at history than either of those two, Ridley Scott-directed epics. It is, first and foremost, incredibly funny. The relationship between Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon and Vanessa Kirby’s Josephine results in marital spats that are as outright hilarious as they are emotionally messy, and the movie’s depiction of its infamous French leader occasionally veers into pure farce.

Calling it a comedy may be too much of a stretch, but it’s not purely a drama, either. In fact, Napoleon totally avoids the same grave solemnity of Gladiator and most other historical epics like it. The film does so in favor of indulging in an irreverent attitude that is jarring, unexpected, and refreshing.

Napoleon refuses to take its subject seriously.

Apple Original Films/Sony Pictures

Napoleon starts off straightforward enough. The film’s opening sequence details the culmination of the French Revolution and offers a slow-motion recreation of Marie Antoinette’s public beheading. Scott’s camera lingers on the image of Antoinette’s severed head before coldly cutting to a close-up of Phoenix’s Napoleon watching from the crowd with a sly twinkle in his eyes. In these moments, Napoleon is at its most grandiose and familiar, but it isn’t long before Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa have done away with the film’s initially majestic, bloody sense of grandeur.

The Siege of Toulon, which serves as the movie’s first real battle, is punctuated just as much by Phoenix’s terrified yelps, exasperated screams, and the panicked flailing of his arms and legs as it is by the mortar blasts and gunshots of the siege itself. Napoleon’s first attempt to charge triumphantly into battle is even cut hilariously short when his horse is bludgeoned by a cannonball. Together, Phoenix, Scott, and Scarpa waste little time tearing down any notion viewers might have had that the film would present its subject as some unrivaled man of foresight and wisdom. As strategically gifted as he may be, Napoleon makes it clear that its protagonist is still, at the end of the day, the kind of overambitious man that viewers should be able to easily recognize.

Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t play Napoleon as an unparalleled, wise military leader, but as a needy tyrant.

Apple Original Films/Sony Pictures

In his relationship with Kirby’s Josephine, Phoenix’s Napoleon is rendered as a whimpering, clingy partner who requires constant affirmation and attention and yet insists that he exists above those needs — a momma’s boy willfully ignorant of the power that the women in his life hold over him. In one scene, Napoleon literally crawls underneath a dinner table in order to get to Josephine. In another, he throws food at her and screams petulantly about how their inability to produce an heir has threatened to get in the way of his destiny. Even after he’s divorced Josephine, he still pays her routine visits — demanding her attention even when she’s no longer required to give it and mindlessly presenting her with the child that he’s had with his second wife.

All the while, Phoenix constantly undercuts Napoleon’s bravado. Never one to make the obvious play, Phoenix undersells his character’s biggest accomplishments and overdoes his most pathetic moments — screaming so loud during each of Napoleon’s tantrums that his voice repeatedly cracks into a high pitch. Phoenix, in collaboration with Scott and Scarpa, uses modern language and behavioral ticks to paint a portrait of Napoleon that isn’t just critical, but shockingly ungracious. The three clearly never felt a need to portray Napoleon as the kind of legendary figure or great man that many believed they would, and the film is better for it.

Vanessa Kirby’s decidedly modern performance as Josephine adds an interesting wrinkle to Napoleon and its audacious take on one of Europe’s most turbulent periods.

Apple Original Films/Sony Pictures

Opposite Phoenix, Kirby brings a similarly modern edge to Josephine. She’s forthright and self-aware, simultaneously confident of her hold over her husband and afraid of the precariousness of her social status. On The Crown, Kirby made a name for herself playing a woman unafraid to demand more from her old-fashioned aristocratic life. In Napoleon, she brings the same self-possessed spirit to her performance as Josephine, which just further underlines the unfairness of her eventual sidelining and social relocation.

Such is the ingeniousness of Napoleon. The film brings a powerfully modern touch to a story that many thought would be presented by its director in a far more severe, ceremonial fashion. It’s still an admittedly flawed blockbuster. Napoleon’s life and military career ultimately prove to be too much for its 157-minute theatrical runtime, and the movie’s attempts to both ridicule its subject and highlight the cost of his deadly European campaign don’t totally land.

While it misses the mark at points, though, Napoleon still manages to make a lasting impression. That’s due in no small part to its willingness to break the kind of rules that so many other historical blockbusters often seem suffocatingly restrained by.

Napoleon is now playing in theaters.

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