Joaquin Phoenix might best be described as the anti-Tom Cruise. You won’t see him playing clean-cut, all-American heroes. He doesn’t jump off planes or perform motorbike stunts. Nor does he have Cruise’s wraparound grin. When he does smile, as in his Oscar-winning turn in Joker (2019), the effect tends to be more chilling than charming. The closest he’s come to being a conventional leading man was when he played Jesus (in 2018’s Mary Magdalene) and, earlier, when he played Johnny Cash (in 2005 biopic Walk the Line). Typically, he excels in roles that require either snarling malevolence or wounded self-pity – or a mixture of both.
These qualities are in evidence in Ridley Scott’s epic new biopic Napoleon, released in cinemas later this month. It promises to be another barnstorming turn from one of Hollywood’s most unlikely stars. Phoenix’s Bonaparte has a quiet arrogance, an unshakeable belief in his status as a man of destiny – and yet he is also a strangely awkward and diffident figure, aware of his humble Corsican background and obsessed with his beloved Josephine (Vanessa Kirby).
It is not the first time Phoenix has played an emperor in a Ridley Scott movie. Back in 2000, he was cast as Commodus, who succeeded Marcus Aurelius on the throne of imperial Rome in Scott’s Gladiator. The actor brought his familiar mix of understated malice and Machiavellianism to the character.
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