'Outrageously Enjoyable' Or 'Too Often Tedious'? Here's What The Critics Are Saying About Napoleon

Joaquin Phoenix takes the lead in Ridley Scott's new historical biopic, alongside The Crown's Vanessa Kirby.
Joaquin Phoenix in character as Napoleon
Joaquin Phoenix in character as Napoleon

When the trailer for Ridley Scott’s Napoleon dropped in July it was met with a somewhat mixed reception, largely due to Joaquin Phoenix’s accent and a number of supposed historical inaccuracies.

However, with the film’s release now just one week away, critics have had their say on the finished product – and the majority have given it some pretty glowing reviews.

Alongside Joaquin in the title role, The Crown’s Vanessa Kirby takes on the role of Joséphine Bonaparte in the film, and she has been particularly singled out for praise.

Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby at the Napoleon premiere
Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby at the Napoleon premiere
Marc Piasecki via Getty Images

Napoleon reunites Vanessa with her former The Crown co-star Ben Miles as Napoleon’s advisor Caulaincourt, while Tahar Rahim stars as Paul Barras, a key figure in the French Revolution.

While the general consensus towards Napoleon has been largely positive, critics have honed in on a few pain points, too. Here’s a selection of what they had to say...

“Many directors have tried following Napoleon where the paths of glory lead, and maybe it is only defiant defeat that is really glorious.

“But Ridley Scott – the Wellington of cinema – has created an outrageously enjoyable cavalry charge of a movie, a full-tilt biopic of two and a half hours in which Scott doesn’t allow his troops to get bogged down mid-gallop in the muddy terrain of either fact or metaphysical significance, the tactical issues that have defeated other film-makers.”

BBC (4/5)

“Phoenix’s performance is [...] enjoyable. A distant relative of the Emperor he played in Scott’s earlier epic, Gladiator, his Napoleon is relaxed to the point of sleepiness when he’s on the battlefield, a petulant brat in meetings, and a tongue-tied arrested adolescent where women are concerned.

“Scott has already announced that he is preparing a four-and-a-half hour director’s cut of Napoleon, so perhaps that version will fill in a few of the blanks. The current version, impressive as it is, is entertaining without being engrossing. It feels like a tantalising trailer for the longer and presumably richer and deeper film that is still to come.”

Standard (4/5)

“It’s Vanessa Kirby who, much like Ryan Gosling in Barbie, upstages her title character. Scott has said he hopes to release a four-and-a-half-hour cut of his film on Apple TV that delves deeper into the psyche of Empress Joséphine and you can see why: there is an electricity to her scenes that makes the grand, elaborate battle sequences feel drab by comparison.

“But it’s odd and frankly a bit of a shame that the trailer largely sells Napoleon as a standard issue war epic because that’s not what it is at all. Connor Roy and any other -ologists will likely pick all kinds of historical accuracy holes in this. Everyone else will be waiting for the war bits to end so they can get back to the more exciting and interesting stuff.”

Independent (4/5 stars)

“Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, ultimately, has no real sense of the definitive to it. It’s a culmination, only, of the director’s own legacy as one of our finest storytellers and a formative auteur of pop culture. In short, it’s the life of Napoleon as only Scott can tell it, full of verve, spectacle, and machismo.

“Its battle scenes are thrilling, a throwback to the sort of spectacle no one in Hollywood – save, well, Ridley Scott – is interested in anymore. But it can be equally dispassionate, in a way that duly and accurately captures the man one contemporary described as ‘a chess master whose opponents happen to be the rest of humanity’”.

Empire (4/5)

“The marketing for Napoleon did a bang-up job of making Ridley Scott’s take on the French emperor’s rise and fall look very grandiose and serious. But that’s not exactly what the film is like: this is a historical epic which is constantly on the lookout for subtle ways to undercut historical epics.”

“For all its brawn and atmosphere and robustly choreographed combat, this is a distended historical tapestry too sprawling to remain compelling, particularly when its focus veers away from the central couple.

“Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the title role is as eccentric as any the mercurial actor has given, even if his tics don’t always seem entirely grounded in character.

“But it’s when he’s onscreen with Vanessa Kirby as Josephine, the fallen aristocrat re-elevated by her marriage to Napoleon and then nudged aside when she fails to produce an heir, that the nearly three-hour historical epic is most alive.”

Its dialogue is nimble and frequently funny, and Rupert Everett gives an amusing turn as the Duke of Wellington, the British general facing off with Napoleon at Waterloo. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of this wit.

“One thing a Ridley Scott Napoleon film probably shouldn’t be is tedious, which it too often is. The film starts with a nasty and distinctive thwack announcing a France gone crazed and bloodthirsty – we open on the beheading of Marie Antoinette – but then it gradually settles into the rote recitation of any standard issue life-and-times biopic.

“Napoleon feels both hurried and ponderous, enlivened only occasionally by a wry and quickly vanishing gesture toward what it all might be saying.”

Daily Mail (3/5 stars)

“Many great filmmakers have tried to tackle the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, yet have been thwarted, just as the little Corsican was when he invaded Russia, by the vastness of the enterprise.

“Charlie Chaplin and Stanley Kubrick were both defeated, and in a way Sir Ridley Scott is, too.

There is much about his latest epic that is enjoyable. Some of the battle scenes are truly spectacular and Vanessa Kirby is astutely cast as the beguiling Josephine, who is the second great love of Napoleon’s life – after himself.

“However, Joaquin Phoenix in the title role gives an enigmatic, mumbling performance that leaves you wondering, even after two and a half hours, just what makes Napoleon tick. We get that he’s a military genius. We get why he is crowned emperor.”

Napoleon is released on 22 November in the UK. Watch the film’s trailer below:


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