Reviewed by: Shawna Ellis
Setting: 1790s France and Egypt
The life of French leader Napoleon Bonaparte, born August 15, 1769 descended from Italian nobility, died May 5, 1821 (aged 51)
He crowned himself Emperor of the French
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Ridley Scott revealed that he has a 4½ hour director’s cut of “Napoleon” that explores more of Empress Joséphine, and hopes that he will be able to release it in theaters and on Apple TV+, after the initial theatrical release.
What is the Biblical perspective on war? Answer
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For a follower of Christ, what is LOVE—a feeling, an emotion, or an action?
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The real Napoleon was 35 when he became Emperor of France. Joaquin Phoenix was 49 at the time of this film’s release. The real Joséphine was 6 years older than Napoleon, whereas Phoenix is 14 years older than Vanessa Kirby.
In response to criticisms of historical inaccuracies, director Ridley Scott simply responded, “Get a life.”
Joaquin Phoenix … Napoleon Bonaparte
Vanessa Kirby … Empress Josephine
Ludivine Sagnier … Theresa Cabarrus
Rupert Everett … Arthur Wellesley
Mark Bonnar … Jean-Andoche Junot
Ben Miles … Coulancourt
Catherine Walker … Marie-Antoinette
Ian McNeice … King Louis XVIII
Tahar Rahim … Paul Barras
Paul Rhys … Talleyrand
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Dune Films [Morocco]
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|Distributor||Columbia Pictures, a division of Sony Pictures|
Director Ridley Scott is well known for making sweeping films set immersively in other times and places. Usually these movies transport you to that time and place to tell a gripping story. Yet in “Napoleon” we have a wonderfully and painstakingly depicted setting but a story that seems too vast and muddled to be cohesive.
The film follows Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) on a disjointed journey from a young military officer observing the French Revolution in 1793 all the way to his exile and death. That is a lot of ground to cover, especially when you factor in a great deal of screentime for his marriage and volatile relationship with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). Napoleon serves as a narrator through his letters to Josephine as he seeks to rise in power and prestige. Although he claims it is for his love of France that he is so ambitious, the film implies that it was for his own glory.
Bonaparte’s personality was so unique that we use his very name to describe a pursuit of ambition… we call such an attitude “Napoleonic.” His rise from soldier to emperor was so impactful that he is known the world over for his exploits. How is it possible to come to understand such a man in just a few short hours of screen time? How can we know Napoleon when we see him depicted both as a ruthless leader and then as a whimpering husband? As a brilliant strategist but in the very next scene a hasty fool? It left me uncertain of what type of man the film is attempting to portray. Was Napoleon this incohesive man, or does the film itself lack cohesion? It could be that this was just a case of too much story in too little time. Perhaps the rumored extended version might draw this movie together.
Ridley Scott has taken extensive liberties with historical accuracy, but the movie isn’t really claiming to be a documentary. Even so, it feels very much like one as it jumps from one campaign to another… yet it lacks a narrative voice to explain to the viewer the reasoning for these battles. What is at stake? What is there to gain? Who is the opponent and what is their motivation? The viewer doesn’t really know, and it left me uninvested in the outcomes even though the battles themselves were exciting, raw and diverse.
The film is visually stunning, but a movie can’t be carried on beauty alone… it needs a powerful and compelling narrative. Although Joaquin Phoenix is a gifted actor, his talent seems under-utilized in this story. The character of Napoleon seems so vague that I could not form any sort of connection with him.
It’s hard to become invested in the “love story” between Napoleon and Josephine when we don’t see why he so obsessively loves her, or why she is drawn to him. Their toxic relationship is a major element of this movie, perhaps more the focus than the battles and political struggles which make up the rest of the film’s run-time. I enjoy lengthy and slow-building movies, and I especially like historical epics, yet I found myself just waiting for this one to end and have no interest in watching again. The content of concern is also enough to make me decline a re-watch and to leave me hesitant to recommend this movie to others.
Violence: This film is heavily and graphically violent. Images include beheadings, shootings, gory cannonball impacts on men and horses, limbs being blown or cut off, falls from high places, drownings, cuts from swords, a self-inflicted gunshot wound (very close up) and more. We see frantic battles, decapitated heads, disembodied limbs, copious blood, graphic injuries, and the corpses of men and horses. Some scenes are just showing the realistic brutality of war, while others seem to be for shock value. We see an Egyptian mummy in close detail. A man slaps a woman. A man pulls a bloody cannonball from the body of a horse. A couple get into heated arguments and name-calling. A puppet show depicts a beheading.
Sex and nudity: There are a few scenes depicting intercourse with sounds and motion (a married couple and an adulterous affair). To test his virility a middle-aged man sleeps with an 18-year-old to see if she will conceive. Women (and especially the female lead) often wear very low-cut dresses. We see male nudity from the rear. A man paws at the ground like a horse to “beg” for sex. A woman lifts her skirts high (nothing is shown beyond her bare legs) and tells a man that if he looks, he will “see a surprise” and that once seeing it, he will “always want it.” A man says that he owns a woman sexually. There is other suggestive talk and references to sex. At a dance, couples are briefly seen dancing lewdly. A man says that the young age (15) of a prospective partner is only “a detail.” Extramarital affairs are discussed.
Drugs and alcohol: Characters drink and one smokes a cigar.
Language: Vulgar language is heavy when used but not absolutely pervasive through the entirety of the film. In one scene someone uses the F-word three or four times in rapid succession, but then it is not heard again (unless I missed it). A child is referred to as a “bastard.” The names of God and Jesus are used irreverently a few times.
In the film, Napoleon claims that his actions as a ruthless military leader are driven by love of his country. He does not want to see his nation come to ruin and says that everything he does is not for his own ambition but for the glory of France. “My destiny is more powerful than my will,” he says in the film, placing himself in a position of being swept along by some other force besides his own desire for power. Yet in his marriage and political relationships he continually seeks validation, even demanding that his wife to say to him, “You are the most important thing in the world.”
This mindset is taken to an extreme in Napoleon Bonaparte but is really a struggle within each of us as humans. It may not be a quest for world domination, but we all have an inclination to justify the fulfilling of our own desires. James 1:14-15 warns us that…
This is a grim and seemingly inescapable reality. But thankfully that verse goes on:
In the film, Napoleon claims that he is “the world’s only chance at peace.” He believes that this peace can be found from conquering enemies, taking control of land and peoples, and then ruling over this new empire. But in reality, “the world’s only chance at peace” is not something that has been won through military might, but a sacrifice. It is faith in that sacrifice by Jesus for forgiveness of our sins that we can have true peace. Romans 5:1 tells us about what happens when we place that faith in Christ:
Not brief political peace through might and subjugation, but a lasting peace through a relationship with Jesus.
The story of men like Napoleon is an old one, and one that will repeat itself as long as there are nations, political divisions, and those who seek power. Was he a man worthy of any praise for his military genius, or a man to be pitied for his personal failings? This film doesn’t offer up a clear answer to that. The movie shows us disjointed glimpses into his life and deeds, and perhaps will create enough interest in the viewer that he or she can look more into Napoleon’s life to see what kind of man he really was.
I had high hopes for this film, but was left disappointed in its historical inaccuracy, display of immorality, needless graphic violence, and its lackluster story-telling.
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.