'Napoleon' comes up short / A&E biography depicts warrior

'Napoleon' comes up short / A&E biography depicts warrior

Photo of C.W. Nevius

ALERT VIEWER Napoleon: Historical drama. Starring Christian Clavier, John Malkovich, and Isabella Rossellini. Directed by Yves Simoneau. Written by Didier Decoin. 8 p. m. Monday and Tuesday on A&E.

Like invading Russia in the dead of winter, a four-hour mini-series about Napoleon Bonapart probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

"Napoleon," A&E's two-part biography, opens with a shot of the little emperor brooding atop a hill above the sea. Even from the back, he is instantly recognizable -- the greatcoat, that weird inverted-spade hat, and beyond him the sweep and grandeur of the horizons of history.

The problem is that there may be more sweep and grandeur than the filmmakers knew what to do with. As commanding and attractive as Bonapart is as a subject -- A&E director Yves Simoneau says 25,000 books have been written about him -- he has proved to be a difficult legend to bring to the screen. French filmmaker Abel Gance may have done it best, but his 1927 silent film ran about six hours.

This effort has some of the same problems of scale. Arrows snake across maps to indicate campaigns, flags flutter and fall, and as Napoleon, Christian Clavier summons up a ferocious glower that almost makes us forget that he is wearing his hat sideways.

But a decision has to be made. Are we going to attempt to understand the historical significance of the turmoil of Europe in early 1800? Or is this a study of the little man who wanted to conquer the world?

Apparently this is supposed to be the latter, although the only real character development Clavier demonstrates is that his hair gets shorter as the conquests pile up. He definitely has the look down. If this were an oil painting, Clavier would be perfect.

(Originally, it is said, burly French actor Gerard Depardieu, who produced the film, wanted to play the part, which would have been a disaster. Depardieu's nose is bigger than Napoleon.)

But Clavier's Napoleon starts out arrogant and churlish and never really goes anywhere from there. He's like the CEO from hell. Eventually, we know, Napoleon was undone by his bullheadedness, but where is the charismatic leader who captivated his troops and the French people?

Nor do we get any sense of the military brilliance that was his trademark. The battles rage, explosions light up the screen, and horses fall, but Napoleon does nothing but peer through his telescope and mutter. If anything, he seems outflanked at times.

"The Prussians?" he always seems to be saying. "What are they doing here?"

It should be said that this is an old-fashioned costume drama that has spared no expense. Filming took place in seven countries, and the lines of musket-toting extras stretch out over the hills as far as the camera can see.

Indoors, the shots are framed in authentic historical buildings so ornate that the characters seem to be living inside a wedding cake. The actors are done up in period-perfect garb. Although each of Clavier's uniforms makes him look more potbellied than the last, that's very Napoleonic.

Nor was there any skimping on the supporting cast. First and foremost, as usual, is John Malkovich, as Talleyrand. Now, there's an intriguing and enigmatic character. Malkovich makes absolutely no effort to feign a French accent, yet he shows more range than Clavier, whose authentic French is so thick that it sometimes makes him hard to understand.

Isabella Rossellini, as Josephine, ages gracefully through the film, although some may be distracted by the fact that she now looks exactly like her mother, Ingrid Bergman.

Depardieu has a part as Napoleon's minister of police, but his is one of several plot devices that fizzle out after a promising introduction.

That's the way the whole production seems. Although it is set in a gorgeous,

authentic frame, the overall picture is no more than a sketch. Watch "Napoleon" for the scenery, the costumes and the memory of the time, unlike now, when France was ready to go to war at the drop of a silly hat.