Napoleon is a 2023 epic historical drama film directed and produced by Ridley Scott and written by David Scarpa. Based on the story of Napoleon Bonaparte, primarily depicting the French leader’s rise to power as well as his relationship with Empress Joséphine, the film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon and Vanessa Kirby as Joséphine.
Following the completion of his film The Last Duel in October 2020, Scott announced Napoleon as his next project, with Phoenix cast in the titular role. Following delays and recastings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including Kirby replacing Jodie Comer, filming began in February 2022 in England, lasting several months. In addition to writer David Scarpa, frequent Scott collaborators included cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and editor Claire Simpson.
Napoleon premiered at Salle Pleyel in Paris on November 14, 2023, and was released in the United States and the United Kingdom on November 22, 2023, by Columbia Pictures and Apple Original Films, through Sony Pictures Releasing, before streaming on Apple TV+ at a later date. The film has grossed $136 million worldwide and received mixed reviews from critics, with praise for the battle sequences and performances, though it was criticized for its historical inaccuracies; reviews by French critics were mostly negative.
In 1793, amid the French Revolution, young army officer Napoleon Bonaparte watches Queen Marie Antoinette being beheaded by the guillotine. Later that year, Revolutionary leader Paul Barras has Napoleon manage the Siege of Toulon; he successfully storms the city and repels the British ships with artillery. After Maximilien Robespierre is deposed and executed at the end of the Reign of Terror, French leaders, including Napoleon, attempt to restore stability. Again employing artillery, Napoleon suppresses the royalist insurrection on 13 Vendémiaire in 1795.
Napoleon woos aristocratic widow Joséphine de Beauharnais and the two eventually marry. Despite their vigorous sex life, they bear no children. In Egypt, he prevails again at the Battle of the Pyramids in 1798, but rushes home when he hears Joséphine has a lover, Hippolyte Charles. The Directory criticises him for abandoning his troops, but he condemns them for their poor leadership of France and, alongside several collaborators such as Talleyrand, Fouché, Sieyès and Ducos, overthrows them in a coup and becomes First Consul.
Napoleon is crowned Emperor of the French by the pope in 1804, during which he audaciously puts the crown on his own head. Foreign Minister Talleyrand suggests to Austria an alliance, though the Austrians dismiss the idea. A year later, Napoleon outmanoeuvres and defeats the Austrians and Russians at the Battle of Austerlitz, forcing them to retreat over frozen lakes before bombarding the ice and drowning them. Afterwards, he invites Austrian Emperor Francis II for wine—which Russian Tsar Alexander I declines to attend—and tells Francis that since he did not totally destroy their armies, he expects the latter to be grateful.
Napoleon’s mother has him impregnate a mistress, proving that Joséphine is infertile. He divorces her in 1810, publicly slapping her in the face when she initially refuses to read her portion of the decree, but the two remain on good terms and continue exchanging friendly letters. Napoleon marries Marie Louise of Austria, who bears a son one year later.
In 1812, Napoleon invades Russia after Alexander reneges on a peace treaty with France. He prevails, despite bloody guerrilla resistance by Cossack forces, at the Battle of Borodino, but finds Moscow empty and later set aflame. Napoleon retreats during the winter to France, having lost about half a million men. In 1814, the Coalition force Napoleon’s abdication and exile him to Elba.
In 1815, upon hearing that Joséphine is unwell, Napoleon escapes the island and returns to power in France. She, having been forced into reclusion at the Château de Malmaison, dies before he arrives. King Louis XVIII sends the Fifth Regiment to stop Napoleon, but he charms them into joining him.
At the Battle of Waterloo in June, Napoleon, having amassed more troops, confronts the British army under the Duke of Wellington. French cavalry charges are repulsed by British infantry squares, and a desperate Napoleon urges his remaining soldiers forward, but this advance is decimated by re-formed lines of enemy infantry. The forces of Prussian Marshal Blücher arrive to reinforce Wellington, and the French are broken. As Napoleon retreats, he salutes Wellington.
Napoleon is exiled, this time to the island of Saint Helena in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and is seen bantering with children, writing his memoirs that would become a worldwide best-seller, and presenting to his listeners a version of history where he is always right.
Napoleon dies in 1821, hearing Joséphine beckon him to meet her again. An epilogue notes that roughly 3 million people died in his wars.
- Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French.
- Vanessa Kirby as Empress Joséphine, Empress Consort and the first wife of Napoleon.
- Tahar Rahim as Paul Barras, a politician who was the executive head of the Directory during the French Revolution.
- Rupert Everett as Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington.
- Ben Miles as Caulaincourt, a diplomat and close advisor to Napoleon.
- Ludivine Sagnier as Thérésa Cabarrus (Madame Tallien), a socialite and noblewoman
- Matthew Needham as Lucien Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon.
- John Hollingworth as Marshal Ney, lauded as “the bravest of the brave” by Napoleon.
- Youssef Kerkour as Marshal Davout, one of Napoleon’s finest commanders.
- Sinéad Cusack as Letizia Bonaparte, mother of Napoleon.
- Phil Cornwell as Sanson ‘The Bourreau’, the executioner who guillotined Louis XVI, the King of France.
- Édouard Philipponnat as Alexander I, the Tsar of Russia.
- Ian McNeice as Louis XVIII, King of France during the Bourbon Restoration, following Napoleon’s exile to Elba.
- Paul Rhys as Talleyrand, a leading diplomat of France.
- Catherine Walker as Marie-Antoinette, Archduchess of Austria, and later Queen of France.
- Gavin Spokes as Moulin, a Directory politician.
- Mark Bonnar as Jean-Andoche Junot, general of Napoleon and commander of the French invasion of Portugal in 1807.
- Anna Mawn as the Archduchess Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s second wife.
- Davide Tucci as Lazare Hoche, a general and hero of revolutionary France.
- Sam Crane as Jacques-Louis David, a preeminent Neoclassical French painter.
- Scott Handy as Marshal Berthier, chief of staff to Napoleon from his first Italian campaign in 1796 until his first abdication in 1814, and twice Minister of War of France.
- Abubakar Salim as General Dumas.
Napoleon premiered at Salle Pleyel in Paris on November 14, 2023.
For the film’s theatrical release, Apple Original Films partnered with Sony Pictures Releasing, under their Columbia Pictures banner, to help exhibit the film worldwide. It was released in cinemas first in the United States and the United Kingdom on November 22, 2023, before releasing on Apple TV+ at a later date.
In August 2023, Ridley Scott revealed that he has planned a 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. Scott indicated that the planned director’s cut would run four hours and ten minutes.
On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, 59% of 285 critics’ reviews are positive, with an average rating of 6.3/10. The website’s consensus reads: “Ridley Scott is intent on proving the emperor has no clothes in Napoleon, a slyly funny epic with bravura set pieces and a divided runtime that keeps it from outright conquering.” Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, assigned the film a score of 64 out of 100, based on 60 critics, indicating “generally favorable” reviews. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of “B−” on an A+ to F scale, while those polled by PostTrak gave it a 72% overall positive score, with 46% saying they would definitely recommend the film.
Critics praised the film’s epic scale, battle scenes, and Phoenix and Kirby’s performances, while some took issue with the length and Scott’s “bloated” direction. French critics had a less enthusiastic view than those from Britain and America, considering Napoleon “lazy, pointless, boring, migraine-inducing, too short and historically inaccurate.” A review in Le Figaro stated that the film could have been called “Barbie and Ken under the Empire”, and another in the French edition of GQ deemed it to be “deeply clumsy, unnatural and unintentionally funny”. Patrice Gueniffey, a leading historian in the Napoleonic studies, called the movie “very anti-French and very pro-British” in an interview to Le Point.
Writing in The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw gave the film a full five stars and called it a “thrilling biopic”, concluding that Scott “doesn’t withhold the old-fashioned pleasures of spectacle and excitement. Phoenix is the key to it all: a performance as robust as the glass of burgundy he knocks back: preening, brooding, seething and triumphing.” Writing in The Observer, Wendy Ide gave it three out of five, calling it a “sturdy epic” that struggled to “show us what drove the military mastermind”. She continued, “A man, even a man as combative as Napoleon, amounts to more than the battles he has fought. And it is in this respect that the film is less successful.” The BBC’s Nicholas Barber found the film’s battle sequences “spectacular”, and also praised the performances of Kirby and Phoenix. Johnny Oleksinski of the New York Post wrote: “[…] it’s too bad Scott could not deliver a brilliant character study of one of the world’s great military leaders — and instead settled for letting a self-indulgent Phoenix fly over the cuckoo’s nest”. Time Out’s Phil de Semylen gave the film three out of five stars, writing that “Ridley Scott’s beefy account of Napoleon’s rise to power looks great, is served with some panache, but crucially lacks flavour.”
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