“Napoleon” – the Great-small Leader [movie review]

Napoleon 2023


Title: “Napoleon”

Release Date: 2023

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby etc.



As a full-time mother of two, I rarely make time for cinematic novelties, and this was also to be the case with Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon.” However, the extremely mixed reviews of the film have fueled my curiosity, especially since historical prose was an object of my scholarly interest years ago. And after the screening, I think to myself that “Napoleon” did not deserve crushingly critical reviews. However, I understand why the movie, in which the portrait of the famous emperor at times verges on satire, may not appeal, especially in Poland. After all, as Andrzej Kijowski aptly noted in his essay “A November Evening”: “No one has ever exploited the Poles more. None of the allies treated them more brutally. And no one beloved them more. That is the secret.”

“Napoleon” – the great challenge of Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott is a filmmaker with a big name and reputation, who can certainly make great historical cinema, as “Gladiator” is the best proof. However, one has to admit that filming the story of one of the most famous figures in the history of the world must have been and was quite a challenge. Especially if one intends, as Scott did, to show such a vast and eventful period as the era of the Napoleonic Wars. Of course, Scott had a worthy predecessor in this matter, namely the famous 1927 “Napoleon,” directed by Abel Gance. The silent classic, although it does not show the entire history of the French emperor, is still regarded today as an unsurpassed work and one of the best movies in the history of cinema.

Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” is unlikely to live up to this title, but this does not mean that it is a poor picture. On the contrary, leaving aside all the objections of historians, about which in a moment, the film is certainly memorable. And this is the first and most important feature of worthwhile cinema. What’s more, it seems that the more than eighty-year-old director is still able to stimulate the hearts and imagination of young viewers. To prove this, let me share a personal observation. Namely, I went to a matinee screening, so I sat in a cinema full of schoolchildren who were there as part of class trips, and not only watched “Napoleon” in complete silence with bated breath, but after the screening they applauded the picture.

Npoleon movie review

As for the allegations of historians, they certainly have their justification, although some of the indicated transformations of facts seem understandable in the context of the intentions of the filmmakers. I think, for example, of the film’s opening extremely dramatic scene of Marie Antoinette’s execution on the guillotine, watched by Napoleon. It is clear to me that his presence in the crowd is needed to show his reflection on current events and foreshadows that he himself will soon be at the center of French history, including as the one who will lift the crown that has just been thrown in the mud.

“Napoleon” – the emperor who won the crown for himself

The figure of Napoleon and his historical role could certainly be viewed from a variety of perspectives. Ridley Scott’s depiction is dominated by the face of a self-made-man – someone who won himself a throne and a place in history. From his successes as a distinguished captain capturing Toulon in 1793 to his coronation as emperor in 1804, when, breaking the rules of protocol, he single-handedly put on crowns for himself and Josephine as a sign that it was not his birth, but his own merits that led him to the throne of France.

This causality and Napoleon’s personal responsibility for every military and political move are repeatedly emphasized in the film. It is he in the flesh who appears as a brilliant strategist in the great battle of Austerlitz, which, incidentally, is one of the best parts of Scott’s picture. It is he who, in defiance of his advisors, gives the order to continue the murderous march on Moscow, and it is he who, after escaping from Elba, once again wins the hearts of his soldiers and in no time at all rallies an army of 100,000 to suffer the final defeat at Waterloo in June 1815.

It is telling, however, that even the moments of Bonaparte’s greatest glory seem more gloomy than cheerful and optimistic. And this is not changed by the increasingly rich and grandiose costumes of the main character, more sumptuous feasts and royal chambers. The cinematography, shot in low-code, seems to convey a gloomy mood and exudes a premonition of impending defeat, which hangs over the emperor like a fatality. Even if a victory, it is only temporary. A moment that passes in an instant like a cinematic frame. This impression is also heightened by Joaquin Phoenix’s acting, especially his overly serious and impenetrable facial expressions. In the long run, they make the character of Bonaparte less believable, lacking the charisma that he undoubtedly had to infect his soldiers and people with to achieve so much.

Napoleon film 2023

“Napoleon” movie – a grotesque lover

Along with the development of Napoleon’s political career, we also observe his private life. And it must be said that in this aspect the film fares much better, mainly due to the excellent performance of Vanessa Kirby in the role of Josephine. She is the iconic embodiment of a rococo lady whose frivolity and ars amandi take the emperor’s heart by storm. Bonaparte even becomes her boudoir mascot, madly in love and sending long longing letters to his wife from the battlefields. It is also impossible not to notice that in the role of a lover Napoleon comes off extremely grotesque. Brilliant in war, in the bedroom he seems pathetic and limited. His lack of erotic inventiveness also amuses Josephine herself, who even bursts out laughing during intimate close-ups. It is Josephine, however, who remains to the end the greatest love of the emperor, whose last words before his death were: “France… the army… Josephine.”

Thus, if one were to look holistically at the main character of Scott’s movie, it seems that the director simply has no sympathy for him, although at the same time he cannot help being fascinated by this character. Ultimately, Bonaparte here remains a man full of contradictions and impenetrable, like the face of Joaquin Phoenix who plays him.

“Napoleon” and feminist accents

It is also worth noting that Ridley Scott introduces distinct feminist accents into the story. They appear already in the initial scene, when Marie Antoinette, blamed for all the evil proudly marches to the scaffold. It is significant that we do not see the execution of the king, but only his female spouse. This heightens the horror of the events, but also forces an evaluation. For, as Andrzej Kijowski noted, “the history of the French Revolution in the eyes of liberal European opinion is divided into two eras: one was accepted in its entirety, the other was rejected, and the boundary between these eras was the death of the king.”

However, the most important role in the context of female tropes is played by the figure of Josephine, who forces her spouse to make a peculiar declaration. Here Napoleon, a great and famous leader, confesses to his beloved that without her “he is nothing.” Only Josephine gives his life meaning. These words become a kind of curse for Bonaparte. He thinks about them during the march on Moscow, when he has already made the decision to see off his wife and marry a young princess who, unlike his beloved, will give him offspring. In the face of political interests, personal dreams must give way, the heart can only be guided by women, like Josephine, asking her husband to stay by her side instead of moving off to war. In one letter, the rejected spouse writes to her husband that in a future incarnation she should be the emperor, then their fate would be different. So is Scott suggesting that women would have pushed history in a different direction than men did? The question also remains to what extent “Napoleon” is a parabolic film that can be read in the key of contemporary history and the large-scale Russian invasion that threatens Europe….

Napoleon Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby

“Napoleon” and Polish Bonapartism

I couldn’t help mentioning one more point in the occasion of the movie “Napoleon”, namely the special importance of the figure of Bonaparte in the Polish consciousness. The hope that Poles attached to the person of the French emperor was reflected in our national anthem. For us, he is a symbol of glory, courage and the fight for independence. Unfortunately, this does not change the fact that he did not fulfill the hopes placed in him, and even betrayed our country by signing the Peace of Tilsit in 1807, leading to the so-called fourth partition of Poland.

In our consciousness, however, the Napoleonic era founded a kind of mythology to which we are still faithful. Perhaps that is why it is hard for us to look at Napoleon differently. We don’t want anyone to deprive him of his due greatness, in which, after all, we also had our share, and the memory of it has survived to this day. Of course, I don’t think that Ridley Scott’s film is an assault on the legend of the French emperor, but it certainly shows that there is no single version of history and each nation views it through the prism of its own experience.