From Ridley Scott comes the 2023 biopic Napoleon, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte and Vanessa Kirby as Joséphine de Beauharnais. Napoleon rose to become Emperor of the French with Joséphine by his side, although he would later divorce her to marry the Austrian Archduchess Marie Louise to father an heir.
The film begins with the execution of Marie Antoinette which Napoleon watches from the crowd. This never happened, although I can understand adding a scene like this. Also in contradiction to what was shown, Marie Antoinette had her hands bound, was wearing white and had had her hair chopped off. We see how Joséphine was released from prison, although her husband had been executed and how she meets Napoleon by chance. They have an immediate connection and after an endearing scene in which her son requests Napoleon to return his executed father’s sword, a romance begins.
This romance is often interrupted by Napoleon’s military campaign. I will be the first to admit I know nothing about how factual those battle scenes are, although I’ve read that they leave something to desire. The scenes are often narrated by Napoleon’s passionate letters to Joséphine, although the real ones are certainly quite a bit more racy. The film completely glosses over the age difference between Joséphine and Napoleon, which is a shame.
As Napoleon rose to power, he doled out power and kingdoms to his brothers and sisters and arranged advantageous marriages. However, none of this is covered in the film. His younger brother Lucien makes a few brief appearances and his sisters are background players during his coronation scene. Hortense, his stepdaughter and later also his sister-in-law and mother of the future Emperor Napoleon III, gets a few lines to explain her mother’s death. His mother has a brief scene where she snubs Joséphine. It feels like a missed opportunity to highlight this interesting family and how their influence truly spread so far.
After his divorce from Joséphine, we are presented with a timidly smiling Marie Louise. It’s her one and only appearance, and although she is later credited with the birth of a son, she is never mentioned again. Again, this seems like a lost opportunity.
Overall, this film has plenty of things wrong with it, but it also gets a lot right. Vanessa Kirby is a wonderful Joséphine, and Joaquin Phoenix makes a brilliant Napoleon. I enjoyed the battle scenes, even knowing that they weren’t factual. The coronation scene was a feast for the eyes as well.
I think perhaps this subject would be better served with a series rather than a film. It would have allowed for more depth instead of just hopping from battle to battle.
Napoleon is in theatres now.