Napoleon
Napoleon Bonaparte rides on horseback wielding a sabre.
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRidley Scott
Written byDavid Scarpa
Produced by
Starring
  • Joaquin Phoenix
CinematographyDariusz Wolski
Edited by
Music byMartin Phipps[2]
Production
companies
Distributed by
Release dates
  • November 14, 2023 (2023-11-14) (Salle Pleyel)
  • November 22, 2023 (2023-11-22) (United States and United Kingdom)
Running time
157 minutes[3]
Countries
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$130–200 million[4][5]
Box office$220.7 million[6][7]

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 and primarily depicting his rise to power as well as his relationship with his wife, Joséphine Bonaparte, it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon and Vanessa Kirby as Joséphine.

In October 2020, Scott announced Napoleon as his next project. Following delays and recastings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 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 Sony Pictures Releasing, before streaming on Apple TV+ on March 1, 2024. The film has grossed $220.7 million worldwide and received mixed reviews from critics, with praise for the battle sequences and performances, though it was criticized for its historical inaccuracies. At the 96th Academy Awards, the film received nominations for Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, and Best Visual Effects.

Plot

In 1793, amid the French Revolution, young army officer Napoleon Bonaparte watches Marie Antoinette 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 an almost 10-year younger 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 Don 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 the Coalition Wars (1792–1815).

Cast

Joaquin Phoenix at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany
Portrait of then Premier Consul Napoleon I painted by François Gérard, 1803.
Joaquin Phoenix (left) portrays Napoleon.

Production

Development

On October 14, 2020, the same day his film The Last Duel (2021) wrapped filming, Ridley Scott announced Napoleon, at that point provisionally called Kitbag, as his next project for 20th Century Studios, based on Napoleon's life. He would direct and produce, while the screenplay was written by Scott's All the Money in the World (2017) collaborator David Scarpa. The film's working title was derived from the saying that "There is a general's staff hidden in every soldier's kitbag".[19] During the same year, Scott also consulted with University of Oxford scholar Michael Broers regarding Napoleon's life, particularly collaborating with him in deconstructing the geography of the Battle of Waterloo. He also received Stanley Kubrick's script for his planned Napoleon film, which never materialized.[20] By January 2021, Apple Studios announced its commitment to finance and produce the film, with filming scheduled to begin in the United Kingdom in 2022.[21]

Writing

Scarpa had been approached by Scott to write a film based on Napoleon following production of All the Money in the World. As he initially had a "high school basic knowledge" of his life, he conducted research regarding Napoleon and after realizing that writing a film encompassing his entire life was impractical, he decided to focus on Napoleon's relationship with his wife, Josephine.[22] He began by reading Napoleon: A Concise Biography by David A. Bell, but did not understand it and opted to conduct further research by reading more books and watching YouTube videos. When researching Josephine, he cited Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte by Kate Williams as his primary influence.[23] He took inspiration from Scott's The Duellist (1977) and Milos Forman's Amadeus (1984), wanting to portray Napoleon as an "irreverent" figure similar to how Mozart was depicted in Amadeus, and told Scott he envisioned Napoleon as being competent "in the realm of battle", and "incompetent in the realm of love". Scott proposed the idea of beginning the film with Marie Antoinette being under the guillotine, wanting to focus on the "ambivalence about where democracy leads".[22] Scott's writing process also involved hand-drawing storyboards, with him sending Scarpa the illustrations once Scarpa sent him pages from the script.[24]

Casting

Joaquin Phoenix was reportedly attached to star as the French general and emperor Napoléon, reuniting him with the director after Gladiator (2000).[25] Scott had Phoenix and another actor he has refused to reveal in mind to play Napoleón, but felt "blown away" by Phoenix's performance in Joker (2019) and concluded that Phoenix could be an "amazing asset" for Napoleon, both creatively and commercially.[26]

The Last Duel actress Jodie Comer was reportedly Scott's first choice to play Joséphine. She entered negotiations to star in March 2021, confirmed her casting in September, and said: "I just jumped at the chance to work with Ridley and his team again and the idea of working with Joaquin, who's someone who I hugely admire... I'm so excited to delve into that world."[27][28] In November, she said her role was "going to be another huge challenge, but what I love about period dramas is that kind of transformation. Even now, doing some costume and hair tests for Kitbag, it's just so exciting because it becomes so much easier to step out of yourself and into somebody else."[29] The same month, Youssef Kerkour was confirmed to star.[30] On January 4, 2022, Comer revealed her departure from the film due to scheduling changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.[31] Vanessa Kirby was announced as her replacement later that day.[32] On January 18, 2022, producer Kevin J. Walsh said the film had been retitled Napoleon.[33] In February, Tahar Rahim was added to the cast, in the role of Paul Barras.[34] The historian Lorris Chevalier, who worked on The Last Duel, became the historical advisor.[35]

Filming

The West Front of Lincoln Cathedral seen from the Castle wall in 2006.
Initial filming took place at Lincoln Cathedral.
Some battle scenes and romantic scenes were filmed at Blenheim Palace.

Production began in February 2022.[34] The film features six major battle sequences, unlike Waterloo (1970), another film featuring Napoleon, that focused on a single battle.[36] Napoleon was shot under the working title Marengo, a reference to the Battle of Marengo (1800).[37] Filming took place in Lincoln, England in March 2022.[38] The crew reportedly spent a week to prepare Lincoln Cathedral, which stood in for Notre-Dame de Paris. Shooting took place in the cathedral on March 17 and 18, between 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.[39][40][41]

Filming also took place at other English locations: Stowe House, Buckinghamshire;[42] West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire;[43][44] Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire;[45] Petworth House, West Sussex;[46] Boughton House, Northamptonshire;[47] and the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London.[48] The execution of Marie Antoinette was filmed at Somerset House in London.[49]

It was also shot in Malta for three weeks, starting in May 2022. Fort Ricasoli in Kalkara was transformed into the site of 1793's siege of Toulon, where Napoleon had his first victory.[50][51][52] The desert in the area of Merzouga in Morocco stood in for Egypt.[53][54] The film was shot in just 62 days.[55]

Music

Main article: Napoleon (soundtrack)

Release

Napoleon premiered at Salle Pleyel in Paris on November 14, 2023.[56]

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.[57][58][59][60] It was released in cinemas first in the United States and the United Kingdom on November 22, 2023, before releasing on March 1, 2024 on Apple TV+.[61][62]

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.[63] Scott indicated that the planned director's cut would run four hours and ten minutes.[64]

Home media

Napoleon was released on digital platforms on January 9, 2024.[65]

Reception

Box office

As of February 8, 2024, Napoleon has grossed $61.5 million in the United States and Canada, and $159.2 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $220.7 million.[6][7] In February 2024, Deadline Hollywood reported that the film lost Apple around $16 million during its theatrical run, but made up for it from home rentals.[66]

In the United States and Canada, Napoleon was released alongside Wish and the wide expansion of Saltburn, and was originally projected to gross around $22 million from 3,500 theaters over its five-day Thanksgiving opening weekend.[67] After making $7.7 million on its first day (including $3 million from Tuesday night previews), estimates were raised to $29–33 million. It then made $4.4 million on Thanksgiving Day and $8.4 million on Friday. The film went on to debut to $20.4 million in its opening weekend (and a total of $32.5 million over the five days), finishing second behind holdover The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes.[68] It fell 65% in its second weekend to sixth place, grossing $7.1 million.[69]

Rebecca Rubin of Variety noted that under a traditional theatrical release, the film would need to gross $500–600 million worldwide in order to break-even given its $200 million budget. However, the success of the film could not be based solely on the box office, and would hinge on subscribers driven to Apple TV+ and "on-demand rentals and other revenue streams that wouldn't have been possible by going directly to streaming". Stephen Galloway, dean of Chapman University's film school, stated: "Apple making a $200 million movie is like you buying a cup of coffee and spilling it, but it's not making their brand look good if films [like Killers of the Flower Moon and Napoleon] underperform at the box office."[70]

Critical response

On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, 58% of 329 critics' reviews are positive, with an average rating of 6.2/10. 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."[71] Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, assigned the film a score of 64 out of 100, based on 62 critics, indicating "generally favorable" reviews.[72] 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.[68]

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.[73] 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."[74] 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".[75] Patrice Gueniffey, a leading historian in Napoleonic studies, called the movie "very anti-French and very pro-British" in an interview to Le Point.[76][77]

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."[78] 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."[79] The BBC's Nicholas Barber found the film's battle sequences "spectacular", and also praised the performances of Kirby and Phoenix.[80] 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".[81] 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."[82]

Historical accuracy

Many critics of the film's historical aspects, including historians Adam Tooze and Andrew Roberts, believed it ignored Napoleon's numerous non-military achievements, as well as his popularity with the French people.[83][84] Roberts, a Napoleon biographer, said his portrayal as a proto-Hitler was "as tired as it is absurd".[85][86] Historian Zack White agreed, arguing the film mirrored 19th-century British propaganda denigrating Napoleon as a "Corsican ruffian".[86] Ellin Stein, writing for Slate, pointed out that Napoleon was known for his passion for literature and Enlightenment thought – a far cry from the boorish, loutish soldier that Scott depicts.[87] French historian Patrice Gueniffey called the movie "anti-French" and full of historical inaccuracies, while fellow historian Romain Marsily found the portrayal of Napoleon "lackluster" and “mediocre” while disregarding Napoleon's positive legacies such as the Napoleonic Code.[88][89] Spanish historian Francisco Gracia Alonso called the film "a crime".[90] Historian Joan Tumblety wrote that the movie ignored French atrocities such as those committed after the Siege of Jaffa.[91]

Contrary to the film, Napoleon did not attend the execution of Marie Antoinette, as he was commanding forces at Toulon at the time. The movie additionally depicts a defeated Napoleon meeting Wellington, whereas in actuality, the two men never met.[92][93][94] Oxford historian Michael Broers, who worked on the movie, noted several inaccuracies in Napoleon and Josephine's relationship, including the timing of their divorce (1809, not 1807), its nature (Napoleon did not slap Josephine during their divorce), and its rationale (Josephine is portrayed as encouraging the divorce, whereas in reality, she was fearful of it).[95] The historical Josephine also died the day before Napoleon's exile to Elba, not a year later during the Hundred Days, and thus was not a factor in Napoleon's return.[92]

The film presents Napoleon as firing on the Pyramids of Giza, which never happened.[87] Cairo egyptologist Salima Ikram pointed out that Napoleon held the Sphinx and the pyramids in high esteem and used them as motivation for his troops. "He definitely did not take pot shots at them."[96] In an interview with The Times, Scott defended his depiction of the attack on the pyramids as being "a fast way of saying [Napoleon] took Egypt."[97]

Major events of Napoleon's reign such as the Peninsular War, the Saint-Domingue expedition, the Austrian campaign of 1809 and the campaigns of 1813 and 1814 are entirely omitted. The film's depiction of the battle of Waterloo silences the roles of Dutch and German armies. Napoleon's field marshals, who played a key role in his campaigns, are almost absent from the movie.[90]

Historian Paul du Quenoy criticized the depiction of Napoleonic era battlefield tactics, especially the Austerlitz sequence, "one of the few battles that the film depicts in detail." He noted that historians consider the ambush on the ice to be myth of the Austerlitz campaign, "a minor detail whose significance has been doubted almost since the time of the battle."[92] Napoleon, an artillery officer by training, never personally led a cavalry charge, as is shown at Borodino and Waterloo.[93][98][99] Franz-Stefan Gady, writing for Foreign Policy, described the battle sequences as "a Hollywood mishmash of medieval melees, meaningless cannonades, and World War I-style infantry advances." "For all of Scott’s fixation on Napoleon’s battles, he seems curiously disinterested in how the real Napoleon fought them."[93]

Scott dismissed criticisms of the film's historical inaccuracies. "Napoleon dies then, ten years later, someone writes a book. Then someone takes that book and writes another, and so, 400 [sic] years later, there's a lot of imagination [in history books]. When I have issues with historians, I ask: 'Excuse me, mate, were you there? No? Well, shut the fuck up then.'"[97][100] Scott also declared, responding to French critics, that "the French don't even like themselves".[101][102]

Accolades

Accolades received by Napoleon
Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards March 10, 2024 Best Costume Design Janty Yates, Dave Crossman Pending [103]
Best Production Design Arthur Max, Elli Griff Pending
Best Visual Effects Charley Henley, Luc-Ewen Martin-Fenouillet, Simone Coco, Neil Corbould Pending
AACTA International Awards February 10, 2024 Best Supporting Actress Vanessa Kirby Won [104]
ADG Excellence in Production Design Awards February 10, 2024 Excellence in Production Design for a Period Film Arthur Max Nominated [105]
British Academy Film Awards February 18, 2024 Best Costume Design David Crossman and Janty Yates Nominated [106]
Best Make Up & Hair Jana Carboni, Francesco Pegoretti, Satinder Chumber and Julia Vernon Nominated
Best Special Visual Effects Henry Badgett, Neil Corbould, Charley Henley and Luc-Ewen Martin-Fenouillet Nominated
Outstanding British Film Ridley Scott, Mark Huffam, Kevin J. Walsh and David Scarpa Nominated
Camerimage November 18, 2023 Golden Frog Dariusz Wolski Nominated [107]
Critics' Choice Movie Awards January 14, 2024 Best Costume Design Janty Yates, David Crossman Nominated [108]
Costume Designers Guild Awards February 21, 2024 Excellence in Period Film Janty Yates and Dave Crossman Nominated [109]
Golden Reel Awards March 3, 2024 Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing – Feature Dialogue / ADR Oliver Tarney, James Harrison, Michael Maroussas, Rachael Tate Pending [110]
Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing – Feature Effects / Foley Oliver Tarney, James Harrison, Mike Fentum, Hugo Adams, Aran Clifford, Kevin Penney, Rowan Watson, Oliver Ferris, Sue Harding Pending
Las Vegas Film Critics Society December 13, 2023 Best Cinematography Dariusz Wolski Nominated [111]
Best Costumes Janty Yates, David Crossman Nominated
North Texas Film Critics Association December 18, 2023 Best Cinematography Dariusz Wolski Nominated [112]
San Diego Film Critics Society December 19, 2023 Best Cinematography Nominated [113]
[114]
Best Production Design Arthur Max Nominated
Best Costume Design David Crossman, Janty Yates Nominated
Best Stunt Choreography Napoleon Nominated
Satellite Awards March 3, 2024 Best Cinematography Dariusz Wolski Pending [115]
Best Sound (Editing and Mixing) Napoleon Pending
Best Visual Effects Napoleon Pending
Best Production Design Arthur Max Pending
Best Costume Design David Crossman, Janty Yates Pending
Seattle Film Critics Society Awards January 8, 2024 Best Costume Design Nominated [116]
Set Decorators Society of America Awards February 13, 2024 Best Achievement in Décor/Design of a Period Feature Film Elli Griff and Arthur Max Nominated [117]
Visual Effects Society Awards February 21, 2024 Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature Charley Henley, Sarah Tulloch, Luc-Ewen Martin-Fenouillet, Simone Coco, Neil Corbould Nominated [118]
Outstanding Effects Simulations in a Photoreal Feature Koen Hofmeester, Gianmichele Mariani, Clair Bellens, Hernan Llano Duque Nominated

See also

References

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