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Updated: Feb 9

With sweeping, massive scale battle sequences that call back to Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia", Ridley Scott's NAPOLEON is a giant achievement on the battle field.

WIth a nearly three hour running time, it's the scenes between the battles that left me wanting more.

The always fascinating Joaquin Phoenix (The Joker, Signs) seems miscast as French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. As always, he is eccentric in the role, but it seems less suited to a historical drama than most of his films. I think back to Phoenix in his brilliant portrayal of Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line". You left that film feeling like you'd watched Cash brought back to life by a brilliant actor, immersing himself into the singer.

Here, it feels like stunt casting, with Phoenix portraying more schoolboy lust and petty jealousy than military genius.

But those battle scenes. Wow.

The film's best long sequence is Scott's recreation of the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz, which is usually considered Napoleon's masterpiece. He ingeniously conceals the French army on higher ground, luring Russian forces onto a frozen lake that he then bombards relentlessly with cannon balls, shattering the ice beneath thousands of men and their horses.

Visually stunning in both detail, historical accuracy and epic scope, you watch Napoleon's plan unfold to perfection. After the film was over, I watched this scene again twice, shaking my head at the amount of action and strategy that Scott is able to convey through camera angles and audience perspective. The production design is fantastic, wrapped in a $200 million budget from Apple TV that's well spent.

The entire film is wrapped around the relationship of Napoleon and his one true love Josephine, played by Vanessa Kirby from the "Mission Impossible" films. KIrby is an enigma here. Former royalty, just released from prison during the tumult of the French Revolution, she grabs Napoleon's eye and he is smitten.

Their relationship is bizarre and Phoenix tends to slip into screwball comedy and teenage petulance as a fallback when the relationship hits its low point.

There are never any sparks between the two actors, so I was left wondering aloud if Josephine was just trying to recapture her social status and if her professed love is as deep as her letters convey.

Phoenix's Napoleon is a very tough guy to love.

Epic film biographies of military leaders probably hit their heyday with George C. Scott's portrayal of Patton in Franklin Schaffner's fantastic 1970 film. Scott's General was complicated, prone to violent outbursts and a legendary military strategist, but he created a character that you admired and felt you knew at the end of the film.

There was no such connection for me with Phoenix's Napoleon.

The supporting cast is excellent all around.

Rupert Everett (My Best Friend's Wedding) is the Duke of Wellington, posh, proper and everything Napoleon should be.

Newcomer Edouard Phillipponnat is a screen grabber as the young Tsar Alexander, who Napoleon seeks to bring under his wing.

Ben Miles (Andor, The Crown) is terrific as Caulaincourt, an advisor more adept to the ever shifting seas of politics than Bonaparte.

Scott's version emerges as a direct descendant of Stanley Kubrick's decades planned version of a Napoleon bio. After Kubrick abandoned the project in the early 70's, he used all of his research to create "Barry Lyndon". One wonders what a Kubrick version would have looked like.

Interesting but never emotionally resonant beyond the incredible battles, NAPOLEON emerges as a somewhat hollow portrait of a socially awkward savant of war. After the film was over, I knew a lot more about European history than I did going in, but little more about the man himself.

As close to a new David Lean film as we'll ever see in 2024, NAPOLEON gets a B.

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