Napoleon First Reviews: Surprisingly Funny, with a Scene-Stealing Vanessa Kirby

Critics say Ridley Scott's latest historical epic ultimately feels like a teaser for something bigger, but its standout cast and unexpected humor help to elevate it.

by | November 15, 2023 | Comments


Ridley Scott offers another sweeping historical epic with Napoleon, a movie that has earned a somewhat mixed reaction from critics, as far as its triumphs. While the biopic expectedly presents impressive battle scenes and entertaining performances, the first reviews mostly fault the script and the truncated runtime compared to Scott’s promised director’s cut for its potential to underwhelm audiences. Overall, due to its surprising humor, spectacular action, lead portrayal by Joaquin Phoenix, and scene-stealing turn from Vanessa Kirby as Josephine, Napoleon is nevertheless one of the year’s must-see releases.

Here’s what critics are saying about Napoleon:

Has Ridley Scott made another historical masterpiece?

“His finest since Gladiator. The very definition of a must-see film.” – Linda Marric, HeyUGuys

Napoleon offers the sweep and spectacle that’s offered all too rarely by contemporary cinema.” – Alonso Duralde, The Film Verdict

“This movie is made with a richness of detail and a professional confidence that, sadly, we just don’t see too much of these days. This is, truly, bravura filmmaking.” – Jordan Hoffman, The Messenger

Napoleon stands out from Scott’s more straightforward historical epics. It has ample amounts of epic scale but also manages to roast its subject, in a classy way.” – Fred Topel, United Press International

“It’s an awe-inspiring achievement, although it may leave you with a greater appreciation of Scott’s leadership skills than of Napoleon’s.” – Nicholas Barber,

“It’s not Scott’s best film, but… he shows a level of scale and grandiosity that we’ve never quite seen from him before.” – Ross Bonaime, Collider

“While it’s not on the same level as some of Scott’s other all-time greats, Napoleon is nonetheless an intriguing experiment in storytelling.” – Meghan O’Keefe, Decider

Napoleon is, by and large, a run-of-the-mill, if rather anemic, battlefield biography.” – Johnny Oleksinski, New York Post

“One of my favorite movies of the year.” – Mike Ryan, Uproxx

Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon (2023)

(Photo by Kevin Baker/©Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Are there any surprises?

“I probably laughed harder during this movie than I have during any new movie this year. And the laughs are genuine and intentional.” – Mike Ryan, Uproxx

“Surprisingly funny.” – Jordan Farley, Total Film

“It would be going too far to describe it absolutely as a comedy, but in David Scarpa’s script, Scott’s direction, the rhythm of the editing by Claire Simpson and Sam Restivo, and in Joaquin Phoenix’s deadpan performance, the impulse to offset and amuse is strong.” – Catherine Bray, Empire Magazine

“There’s humor there for sure, and David Scarpa’s script is often intentionally funny in how it portrays the character.” – Chris Evangelista, Slashfilm

“There’s no doubt [Scott] knew the film would be funny, but he seems to have been surprised by how far that funniness would take it, and/or unwilling to concede how little everything else would matter..” – David Ehrlich, IndieWire

“Phoenix [is] sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.” – Hamish Macbain, London Evening Standard

How is it visually?

“The entire look of the film, from the cinematography of big battle sequences down to individual stitchings on the costumes, is as close to perfect as a biopic can get.” – Liam Crowley,

“Working with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, the filmmaker is able to make nearly every frame of the film look like a classical painting, the type you’d see hanging large in an ornate frame in some quiet, cavernous museum.” – Chris Evangelista, Slashfilm

“A beautifully illustrated Wikipedia page.” – Nicholas Barber,

“There’s a disappointingly murky look to much of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s widescreen visuals.” – David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon (2023)

(Photo by Aidan Monaghan/©Sony Pictures Entertainment)

What about the battle scenes?

“The battle scenes are epic.” – Meghan O’Keefe, Decider

“The film opens with a brilliant military victory at Toulon… It’s not often that a filmmaker manages to deliver an image of war that audiences haven’t seen before, and this early example sets a high bar.” – Fred Topel, United Press International

“Overhead shots of horizon-wide cavalry charges, cannon fire, burning ships and other wartime sights are appropriately gigantic and brutal. The Battle of Austerlitz is especially exciting.” – Johnny Oleksinski, New York Post

“The Battle of Austerlitz segment, in particular, plays like the best of epic filmmaking.” – Alonso Duralde, The Film Verdict

“The highlight is undoubtedly the mid-film Battle of Austerlitz, where the French army obliterates the combined forces of Russia and Austria on an icy battlefield thanks to Napoleon’s strategic nous, a sequence of extraordinary tension, terror and tactility.” – Jordan Farley, Total Film

“A skirmish on a frozen, icy lake is a showstopper moment, particularly when cannon fire sends men beneath the ice, the cold blue water instantly turning red with blood.” – Chris Evangelista, Slashfilm

“Scott pulls out all the stops for the combat scenes…exquisite and presumably faithfully rendered battle scenes that gun for Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.” – Damon Wise, Deadline Hollywood Daily

“The movie’s battles are more impressive in scale than in visceral impact.” – David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

Vanessa Kirby and Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon (2023)

(Photo by Aidan Monaghan/©Sony Pictures Entertainment)

We also heard about some sex scenes…

“There are as many sex scenes as there are battles, and quite outrageous (and often kinky) they are too.” – Hamish Macbain, London Evening Standard

“The sex scenes in Napoleon are farcical, showing the great man of history as a rutting loser making barnyard animal noises when he’s aroused and failing to ever make his lady orgasm.” – Meghan O’Keefe, Decider

“Nothing about their courtship is romantic, but it is perversely watchable – a romance between two sociopaths committed to the performance of love. The sex they have is brief, vulgar, and absurd. Napoleon’s idea of seduction is to whinny and stamp his feet like a horse.” – Clarisse Loughrey, Independent

How is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance?

“Napoleon is the type of role that Phoenix thrives in, and the match of subject and actor couldn’t be more perfect.” – Ross Bonaime, Collider

“It’s a performance that’s not only deeply convincing, magnetic in its ugliness, but canny in its approach.” – Clarisse Loughrey, Independent

“A performance as robust as the glass of burgundy he knocks back: preening, brooding, seething and triumphing.” – Peter Bradshaw, Guardian

“I cannot take credit for this observation, but a friend of mine who saw the movie said, ‘It’s like watching Tim Robinson play Napoleon,’ and this is pretty dead on.” – Mike Ryan, Uproxx

“Phoenix gives us his same creepy, whack-job performance from Joker, only now Arthur Fleck is accompanied by a pointy hat, massive scenery, impressive battles.” – Johnny Oleksinski, New York Post

“Joaquin Phoenix in the title role gives an enigmatic, mumbling performance that leaves you wondering, even after two and a half hours, just what makes Napoleon tick.” – Brian Viner, Daily Mail

Vanessa Kirby in Napoleon (2023)

(Photo by Aidan Monaghan/©Sony Pictures Entertainment)

What about Vanessa Kirby?

“It’s Vanessa Kirby who, much like Ryan Gosling in Barbie, upstages her title character… There is an electricity to her scenes that makes the grand, elaborate battle sequences feel drab by comparison.” – Hamish Macbain, London Evening Standard

“Vanessa Kirby leaves Napoleon cementing herself as the frontrunner for Best Actress… Manipulative and cunning yet equally innocent and victimized, Kirby’s Josephine adds a much-needed level of presence every time she is on screen.” – Liam Crowley,

“Kirby proves a perfect fit for Josephine. The age gap is all wrong, but the dynamic works thanks to Kirby’s innate confidence and implied dominance.” – Jordan Farley, Total Film

“Kirby’s command of each scene is fantastic, putting Napoleon in place when he needs to be, but also showing a humanity and love that he clearly needs to get by.” – Ross Bonaime, Collider

“Kirby struggles with a role that has so much psychological weight but increasingly less screen time.” – Damon Wise, Deadline Hollywood Daily

How is the script?

“The screenplay by David Scarpa goes for the wide angle of this extraordinary life, cramming in many of Bonaparte’s military and political achievements between the French Revolution in 1789 and the deposed emperor’s death in exile in 1821. As such, audiences are treated to the highlights.” – Alonso Duralde, The Film Verdict

“The combination of the personal and the massive battles works quite well because of Scarpa’s screenplay. He manages to hit all the obvious notes that this story needs to cover while imbuing them with the internal life of Napoleon that truly guides him.” – Ross Bonaime, Collider

“It struggles to intertwine his personal battles with his political ones.” – David Ehrlich, IndieWire

“The screenwriter, David Scarpa, has scripted lots of pithy and sometimes very funny vignettes… but it lacks insights into who Napoleon is or what he wants, where he comes from or why he is such a success.” – Nicholas Barber,

“While Scott can be commended for his ambition, neither he nor Scarpa manages to build those many plot pieces into a fluid narrative.” – David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

“It’s at its weakest when it bends to narrative convenience… [and] it tends to overshadow the cruel and mechanical machine that drove his empire.” – Clarisse Loughrey, Independent

Director Ridley Scott on the set of Napoleon (2023)

(Photo by Aidan Monaghan/©Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Does it feel like a tease of a longer director’s cut?

“It whets the appetite for the promised longer version yet to come.” – Alonso Duralde, The Film Verdict

“It feels like a tantalising trailer for the longer and presumably richer and deeper film that is still to come.” – Nicholas Barber,

“As I sat watching the theatrical cut of Scott’s film about the infamous general and emperor, I kept thinking, ‘This is okay, but I bet that 4-hour cut is better.” – Chris Evangelista, Slashfilm

“Even if Scott hadn’t already promised a director’s cut of the movie…it would still feel as if large and necessary chunks of Napoleon were missing at its current length.” – David Ehrlich, IndieWire

“There may be issues that the longer cut solves, but even in its already lengthy theatrical form, Napoleon has achieved another resounding victory.” – Jordan Farley, Total Film

Thumbnail image by ©Sony Pictures Entertainment

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