There are two things I love about the first trailer for Napoleon, Ridley Scott’s upcoming epic-scale biopic of the tiny, angry Frenchman. The first is the deeply incongruous song choice to score the trailer: “The National Anthem” by Radiohead, which is the musical antithesis of an 18th/19th-century period piece. The second is the even more incongruous accents—particularly that of Joaquin Phoenix as Monsieur Bonaparte himself.
Phoenix doesn’t try his hand at a French accent, nor does he don an English accent, like the entire rest of the cast. (In Napoleon, both the French and their English nemeses sound like posh Britons.) Instead, the Oscar winner just … sounds like his regular ol’ self.
Not that he talks much in this trailer, mind you. But when Phoenix, who—this is my third favorite thing about the trailer—is squished down to a tinier height (of arguable historical accuracy) for the film, does open his tersely drawn trap, he bleats in his normal, accent-less Californian speaking voice. He even sounds as tired as he usually does in interviews.
It takes until the 35-second mark for us to hear Napoleon speak at all, with the trailer mostly cutting to him slightly parting his lips and staring ahead. But then we hear Phoenix mumble quietly for the first time, while facing down a rival army: “I promise you a billion successes.” At least, I think he says “billion;” his take on Napoleon is terrible at enunciating.
The next time he talks, 10 seconds later, it’s after a Frenchwoman confronts him: “What is this costume you have on?” she sneers, in a haughty-taughty British accent, as Frenchwomen do. (This particular Frenchwoman is Josephine, Napoleon’s future wife, played by the British actress Vanessa Kirby.) “This is my uniform,” Phoenix’s Napoleon says back, quietly.
When he does speak clearly, at the end of the trailer, Phoenix sounds downright American. We see him staring ahead on a wintery battlefield. His army stands behind him, at the ready. “I’m the first to admit when I make a mistake,” he says in voiceover. He lifts his hand up. Cue: cannons, gunshots, bobbing bodies bleeding out into the icy water. “I simply never do.”
I can imagine hearing that exact sentence, in that exact intonation, coming out of the mouth of Beau from Beau Is Afraid, the cool-guy uncle he plays in C’mon C’mon, or maybe even Arthur Fleck from Joker, before he gets really bonkers. It’s Phoenix at his most even-keeled and brooding—perhaps an appropriate tone for playing a steely Frenchman, except that there is no “French” involved.
Since it’s mostly hard to hear what he’s saying throughout the trailer (I blame the sound mixing, which emphasizes the cacophonous gunfire and Thom Yorke’s own warbling), maybe Phoenix does try to do a more British twist on his Napoleon voice in much of the movie. But mostly, he just sounds like Joaquin Phoenix. And I honestly love that for him—if Ridley Scott is going to make you do a British accent when playing the British army’s number-one enemy, you might as well just perform with your own regular voice instead. Neither one is very period-appropriate, so why force it?
Napoleon is in theaters this Thanksgiving, before heading exclusively to Apple TV+.