On a brisk December evening in Antwerp, the city was cloaked in a typical winter chill. Streets glistened from a recent drizzle. It was the kind of night that beckoned for the comfortable seats of a warm cinema. This was precisely where we found ourselves, escaping into the world of Ridley Scott’s latest historical epic, Napoleon.

The cinema welcomed us from the cold. Our group, a mix of history buffs and cinema enthusiasts, was eager to see the portrayal of one of history’s most enigmatic figures. In a moment of unfortunate clumsiness, my fellow moviegoer’s popcorn met an untimely end, scattering across the seats – a minor prelude to the drama that was to unfold on screen.

As the lights dimmed and the opening credits began to roll, we settled in with what remained of the popcorn in hand, ready to be transported back to the tumultuous times of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Questions lingered as the film commenced. Would Scott’s rendition do justice to the complex life of this military genius and conflicted leader? Would the actors capture the essence of Napoleon’s relentless ambition and his tumultuous love affair with Josephine?


The film unfolds with a visual splendour that is unmistakably Ridley Scott. Napoleon takes us through a journey of the titular character’s life, presenting it in a series of fast-paced vignettes. The style is a bit jarring: not so much a film, more a montage of historical titbits. There’s a fluidity to the narrative, jumping from the chaotic streets of revolutionary France to the grandeur of Napoleonic battles. One of the film’s memorable lines, “You think you’re so great because you have boats,” unexpectedly breaks the tension, showcasing Scott’s ability to weave humour into a narrative otherwise laden with drama and intensity.

You think you’re so great because you have boats.

Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon when referring to the British

Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte is nothing short of captivating. He brings a depth to the character that swings between fierce determination and a real sense of vulnerability, particularly in his interactions with Josephine, played with equal parts grace and complexity by Vanessa Kirby. Their chemistry is the linchpin of the film, turning it into a story as much about tumultuous love as it is about political ambition.

Napoleon's coronation of Josephine
Napoleon’s coronation of Josephine in 1804

The film, however, is not without its critiques. The lack of robust supporting characters is noticeable. It’s as if the world revolves solely around Napoleon and Josephine, leaving little room for any other historical figures who undoubtedly played pivotal roles in this era.

Napoleon sitting on a chair
Napoleon sitting on a chair somwhere

Unfortunately, the reliance on rapid montages sometimes undermines the depth and complexity these historical events deserve. In my view, the film can be broadly divided into four thematic parts of comparable length:

  1. the French Revolution,
  2. Napoleon’s string of victories,
  3. the ill-fated Russia campaign, and
  4. the eventual downfall at Waterloo.

And the director seems to rush through them at break-neck speed. From part two, where we see the victorious Emperor of the French, we immediately dive into his disastrous Invasion of Russia (1812).

Napoleon in Russia, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix
Napoleon in Russia, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix

Then again, there’s only so much you can show and tell in 2 hours and 38 minutes of film. That’s one of the reasons why this film feels so rushed. Take for example the last quarter of the story, about the decisive Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815) in our very own Belgium. Contrasting with the 1970 film Waterloo, which meticulously recreated the infamous battle with astonishing detail and scale, Scott’s Napoleon feels more like a dramatic montage.

Where Waterloo used 17,000 soldiers to bring authenticity to its scenes, Scott’s approach leans heavily on modern cinematic techniques, possibly CGI, to craft its battle sequences. This divergence in style might not satisfy purists seeking historical re-enactment but offers a different, more stylised view of history.

Battle of Waterloo: French Cavalry Charge

Despite these criticisms, the action scenes are a spectacle. They might rely on CGI, but they are executed with a flair that keeps you engaged.


In conclusion, Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is a film that resonates differently with each viewer, depending on their expectations. Personally, I would describe it as a cinematic portrayal that intertwines fast-paced storytelling with a focus on the intense, often abuse, romance between Napoleon and Josephine. The film’s deviation from traditional historical epics, favouring a more stylised montage approach, may divide opinions.

For those seeking a detailed, authentic recount of Napoleon’s military campaigns, this film might not suffice. However, if one approaches it anticipating a dramatic, character-driven narrative that captures the essence of Napoleon’s ambition and his volatile relationship with Josephine, they will find much to appreciate.

Scott’s film is a reminder that history, when viewed through the lens of cinema, is as much about the storytelling as it is about the factual accuracy. Napoleon is a testament to the director’s vision of bringing a complex historical figure to life. Not just as a conqueror, but as a man driven by passion, pride, and an unquenchable thirst for power.

Ultimately, Napoleon is an intriguing addition to the pantheon of historical dramas. It offers its own unique perspective on a well-trodden narrative. It’s a film that asks its viewers to look beyond the surface, to find the human element in the midst of grand historical events.

Gepubliceerd door Stijn Vogels

Stijn Vogels, een erkende expert in geopolitieke en technologische trends, analyseert wereldgebeurtenissen sinds 2003. Met een geschiedenisdiploma van de Universiteit van Gent worden zijn inzichten gepubliceerd op zijn blog, Aardling, en sociale media platforms. Stijn heeft ook een wereldwijde schrijversgemeenschap opgezet gericht op internationale betrekkingen. Gekend voor "connecting the dots" tussen technologie en politiek, streeft hij ernaar 'goed te doen' door middel van zijn doordachte analyses en waardevolle perspectieven op onze snel veranderende wereld.