Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix stars as the famed emperor in "Napoleon."

Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix stars as the famed emperor in "Napoleon." Credit: Apple Original Films/Columbia Pictures

PLOT How a French army general became one of history's most powerful and polarizing leaders.

CAST Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Rupert Everett

RATED R (violence and sexuality)


WHERE Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE Thrilling battle sequences can’t save this disappointingly lifeless biopic.

Some salient facts about Napoleon Bonaparte, the army general who survived the French Revolution to become the country’s emperor: He was hugely ambitious, a dictator rather than a consensus-builder and a military genius — except when he wasn’t. His successes were spectacular, his failures more so.

Maybe that’s why Napoleon perennially attracts great filmmakers, from the silent era’s Abel Gance to Stanley Kubrick (whose “Napoleon” never got off the ground) to Steven Spielberg (currently planning an HBO miniseries): They can relate.

Enter Ridley Scott, a director whose brilliant filmography includes the sci-fi classic “Blade Runner,” the feminist milestone “Thelma and Louise” and the blockbuster “Gladiator.” That last, a best picture Oscar winner, featured Joaquin Phoenix as a Roman emperor — a dry run of sorts for his starring role in Scott’s “Napoleon.” This is no hagiography, however. Instead, Scott takes a daring approach, aiming to demythologize a figure whose name is synonymous with grandiosity.

As it turns out, “Napoleon,” written by David Scarpa, is just another historical biopic, the kind you’ve seen many times: beautifully dressed, handsomely photographed and a little dull.

The movie begins with Napoleon casting a skeptical eye on the mob celebrating Marie Antoinette’s beheading, then jumps to his 1793 campaign in Toulon. The shocking sight of a horse’s chest exploding from cannon fire is the start of a pattern: Scenes of backroom power-jockeying among Revolutionary players like the slippery Talleyrand (Paul Rhys) and the genial Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim) will alternate with breathtaking battlefield sequences. (One stunner is Austerlitz, where soldiers drown in a frozen pond pierced by cannonballs, but it’s Waterloo where Scott marshals a proverbial cast of thousands to truly impressive effect.)

The picture of Napoleon that emerges is not of a vibrant, visionary leader but — oddly — an awkward and sullen loner. Phoenix tries to glower with intensity, but often just looks grumpy or tongue-tied. The Empress Josephine (an excellent Vanessa Kirby) is far more intriguing: Widowed during the Reign of Terror and unashamed of her many affairs, she has little patience for Napoleon’s jealousy and spends much of the film snickering at him. (There are moments when you’ll join her.)

The movie never really shows us how this man seduced an entire populace, charmed his enemies and — in a legendary moment — hypnotized a hostile French army into helping him seize power. “Napoleon” certainly takes its subject down a notch. It almost leaves us wondering why anyone would make a movie about him.

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