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‘Napoleon’ is far from dynamite

Ridley Scott’s ‘theatrical cut’ stars Joaquin Phoenix as the French emperor and Vanessa Kirby as a barely-there Josephine.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Napoleon Bonaparte in the theatrical release of "Napoleon."Aidan Monaghan/Apple

Director Ridley Scott is on record saying a four-hour director’s cut of “Napoleon,” starring Joaquin Phoenix as the French emperor, will be made available for streaming after the 158-minute theatrical cut leaves theaters and premieres on Apple TV+. Apparently, the director’s cut will spend more time with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), the great love of Napoleon’s life.

This begs two questions: Why am I reviewing a cut you very likely won’t choose to watch? And if this film is supposed to bear witness to the tumultuous relationship between Napoleon and Josephine, and how their love affected his decisions, why limit Josephine’s screen time in the first place?


Joaquin Phoenix stars as Napoleon Bonaparte and Vanessa Kirby stars as Empress Josephine in "Napoleon."Aidan Monaghan/Apple

I don’t have the answer to either question. What I do know is that “Napoleon” plays like a greatest hits (and misses) collection of the emperor’s life. It relies far too often on the “little man, big temper” idea of Napoleon — at times, Phoenix is practically channeling an angry Donald Duck mid-meltdown — and the scenes between the two lovers make them seem more like robots emulating human beings.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Napoleon Bonaparte and Vanessa Kirby stars as Empress Josephine in "Napoleon."Aidan Monaghan/Apple

One minute, Josephine is graphically extolling the virtues of her nether regions to her future husband; the next, we’re watching passionless, comical sex scenes where Josephine looks as bored as I was sitting through this movie in the theater. This is a love story? The script by David Scarpa gives us voice-overs of written correspondences between the two, but they’re read by the actors with little-to-no emotion. (The French must have had damn good postal service on their battlefields.)

Fierce and chaotic, the re-creations of war also fall short — the CGI in many scenes is shockingly bad. Whenever the movie threatens to become too dull, there’s a battle sequence. They start to blur together as the minutes slowly tick by.


Because we’re not dramatically invested in the outcome, “Napoleon” becomes a highlights reel of your high school western civ class. The historical happenings are dutifully reported one by one until the closing credits. The film opens with a frazzled yet defiant Marie Antoinette being led to the guillotine, with Napoleon present at her execution. Kudos to whomever designed Antoinette’s hilariously fake-looking head, complete with its scorn-filled scowl.

(Historians have already sounded off about this inaccuracy and others, complaints to which Scott responded “Get a life!” I agree with the director on this one — he’s not making a documentary.)

A scene from "Napoleon." Apple Original Films

We witness the 1793 Siege of Toulon, the 1799 coup d’état of 18 Brumaire, Napoleon’s coronation in 1804, the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, and both his exiles on Elba and St. Helena. Historical figures appear on screen and are ushered off as quickly as they arrived — look, it’s Robespierre (Sam Troughton); the Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett); Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim); Talleyrand (Paul Rhys)!

If you don’t know who these people are, you should have paid attention in school because “Napoleon” isn’t going to help you out. Additionally, in an admittedly impressive homage, Scott re-creates one of the most famous paintings of Napoleon and, no, I won’t tell you which one it is.

Kirby is woefully underused, at least in this cut of the film. But even at this length, I’m not sure what to make of Phoenix’s performance. At times, he appears to be acting in a very broad comedy. “You think you’re great because you have BOATS!” he screams about England at one point. He mumbles like late-career Marlon Brando and taps his foot impatiently when he wants sex. And he’s never seen without the Napoleonic collection of gigantic hats that look stolen from Cap’n Crunch’s closet.


Joaquin Phoenix stars as Napoleon Bonaparte in "Napoleon."Apple Original Films

But make no mistake, “Napoleon” is no comedy, at least not an intentional one.

You know, Stanley Kubrick famously spent years researching and writing a script for a movie about Napoleon that never got made. When I visited the touring collection of Kubrick memorabilia and props in Krakow, Poland, I took pictures of several bookshelves of titles the director read about the subject. It looks like Steven Spielberg will be mounting a production of Kubrick’s screenplay, the second time he’s worked on something Kubrick wrote (see 2001′s “A.I.”). Now, that sounds like something worth watching.

For now, however, this is the Napoleon movie we have been given, and it’s up to you to decide if you want to see it.

When Scott isn’t yelling at French critics who correctly say his movie is très mauvais, he’s calling his director’s cut of the film “fantastic.” Maybe that’s the cut you should wait to see. For a change, you can let me know how it is.



Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by David Scarpa. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Sam Troughton, Rupert Everett, Tahar Rahim, Paul Rhys. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, Alamo Drafthouse Seaport, suburbs. 158 min. Rated R (graphic war violence, sex scenes)


Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.