January 12, 2024

Messy biopic where only battlefields shine: Napoleon review

Anatolii Mishustin in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Rating: filled star filled star empty star empty star empty star

Article link copied.

slide image

Joaquin Phoenix stars in Ridley Scott's 'Napoleon', now streaming on Apple+

Picture: Apple + Press

It is pretty interesting to see how the general audience warms up to ‘more serious’ genres of film and grow colder towards superhero flicks.

In 2023, we had Christopher Nolan (Oppenheimer), Michael Mann (Ferrari), and Martin Scorsese (Killers of the Flower Moon) making high-budget historical dramas which have been in the spotlight.

And with Oppenheimer crossing nearly a billion dollars worldwide it’s a no-brainer that there is now a Ridley Scott Napoleon biopic with a $200 million budget. This film, however, was a hot mess.

Joaquin Phoenix attempts to portray Napoleon Bonaparte, the infamous French general and emperor, but it feels superficial. In the context of the film’s unravelling plot, he is excessive in his expressions and body language, which makes him look like a man-child who is just miserable and angry.

This causes us to lose the nuanced understanding of the ruthless yet strategic ruler we have come to know from history classes. Yet, I believe that it’s not Joaquin’s fault but the shortcomings of the script.


My main issue with Napoleon is how unbalanced it is – it’s like Ridley Scott tried to make two different films at once, alternating between a character study of Napoleon and the love of his life Josephine, and an epic historical drama of Napoleon’s rise and fall from power.

Many of Napoleon’s great ventures, such as his Italian campaign, are left off-screen and are brushed off through single lines of dialogue. Moreover, many years of history are skipped without a mention, causing one to feel like Scott was trying to rush the viewer through the life of Napoleon.

The mix of exaggeration and seriousness results in many moments of the film being unintentionally hilarious. All of this leaves the viewer with an aftertaste of uncertainty about the film’s intention, unsure if it is either to glorify or ridicule Napoleon.

Oppenheimer review: Three-hour long biopic nothing short of mind-blowing

But I did enjoy the battle sequences and the image of the burning Moscow. The battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo are this film’s most spectacular moments that took my breath away. But the bloated nature and indecisiveness clearly outweighed the performances, and battle sequences ultimately resulted in disappointment.

I would, however, be lying if I said that I didn’t have fun watching the picture and that I anticipate the upcoming four-hour director’s cut.

Written by:


Anatolii Mishustin

Film critic

Kyiv, Ukraine | Amsterdam, Netherlands

Hailing from Ukraine, Anatolii was born in 2006 and now resides in Amsterdam while getting his diploma. Moving to the Netherlands was a decision first and foremost motivated by the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Anatolii keeps his hand on the pulse of modern media and underground culture, that’s what grows his interests and ambitions each day. He joined Harbingers’ Magazine in 2023 to challenge himself in this area to explore cultural journalism, and quickly established himself as the lead film critic for the magazine.

His work also secured him an invitation to the first edition of the Harbinger Fellow programme with the Oxford School for the Future of Journalism.

In his free time, he enjoys basketball, watching films, and playing video games.

Anatolii speaks Ukrainian, Russian, English, and is learning Dutch.

Edited by:


Megan Lee

Culture Section Editor

Hong Kong | United Kingdom


Create an account to continue reading

A free account will allow you to bookmark your favourite articles and submit an entry to the Harbinger Prize 2024.

You can also sign up for the Harbingers’ Weekly Brief newsletter.