Napoleon

30 Nov 2023

By Contributor

By John Mulderig

Joaquin Phoenix stars in a scene from the movie Napoleon. The OSV News classification is L – limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Photo: OSV News/Aidan Monaghan, Sony.

Is “Napoleon” (Sony) dynamite? The answer might depend on whom you ask.

Viewers out for sweeping spectacle will likely come away from director Ridley Scott’s historical epic satisfied.

But those seeking insight into the conquering French emperor’s personality will find there’s a hollow ring to star Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of him.

Battlefield gore and steamy sex scenes, moreover, make the film’s demanding fare suitable only for the hardiest grown-ups.

As Napoleon’s military and political career advances, he falls for the young widow Josephine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby).

Screenwriter David Scarpa’s depiction of their relationship, however, is eccentric. Their dialogue carries undertones of a mutual, sadomasochistic desire for mastery while their physical interaction is better fitted to a barnyard than a marital chamber.

Napoleon, the script would have us believe, was a weirdly awkward character.

Phoenix fumes and smoulders but also delivers lines so out of place as to provoke laughter. The upshot is an unconvincing portrait, though the sequence devoted to his eventual divorce from Josephine – whom he still loved but who had failed to produce an heir – is poignant.

The climactic Battle of Waterloo is also handled impressively. But what precedes it, while sometimes visually striking, is flawed at a human level. Whether mature moviegoers ultimately reckon the artistic tally in the red or the black, they’ll have to be prepared for the numerous taxing elements included in this polished but often implausible retrospective.

The film contains much bloody violence, several gruesome sights, graphic scenes of marital lovemaking, an adultery theme, partial male nudity, obscene imitations of aberrant acts, at least one use of profanity, a couple of milder oaths and fleeting rough and crude language.

The OSV News classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.