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The Emperor's New Clothes   B

Paramount Classics

Year Released: 2001 (USA: 2002)
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Alan Taylor
Writers: Kevin Molony, Alan Taylor, Herbie Wave (based on the novel The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys)
Cast: Ian Holm, Iben Hjejle, Tim McInnerny, Tom Watson.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Emperor's New Clothes plays upon the tricky notion of alternate history: the examination of past events if they had turned out differently. Most involve huge concepts with widespread ramifications -- what if the Nazis had won the war, for example. The Emperor's New Clothes, however, takes a quieter turn. The concept is certainly large enough (what if Napoleon had made one last bid for the throne?), but it tells a much smaller story with it. Rather than showing its impact on a broad scale, it focuses solely on the man at its heart... and turns speculative fiction into a moderately charming romantic comedy.

Indeed, to the world at large, nothing much in The Emperor's New Clothes has changed. Exiled to a distant island following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon (Ian Holm) lives out his last few years as a veritable prisoner, content to dictate his memoirs and quietly gripe at the British soldiers guarding him. But what if, a few months before his reported death, he switched places with a lookalike commoner named Eugene (also played by Holm) and secretly returned to France? There, the film assures us, he intended to rally the people to his side again, sweep the Bourbons out of power, and restore his glorious Empire. It's a brilliant plan, but there's just one snag: his double back on the island takes to life there more than anyone expected, and doesn't want to stop being Napoleon. Until he reveals himself as a fraud, the plot can't go forward... and the real Napoleon is left friendless and destitute on the streets of Paris. He ends up in the household of a struggling grocer, Pumpkin (Iben Hjejle, Cusack's girlfriend in High Fidelity), who views him as an endearing eccentric, and can do little but watch as his fame and legacy slip through his fingers.

The bulk of the film concerns itself with Napoleon's struggle to hold onto his identity, and the way he slowly grows to enjoy the small joys of a simple life. It doesn't demand much from its audience (particularly when a pleasant but predictable romance blooms between the former Emperor and the widowed Pumpkin), and yet it quietly rewards those with the patience to pay attention. Belly laughs are not this film's aim; it works for more subtle joys. The humor comes in gentle nudges, playing on circumstance and human foibles rather than pratfalls or plot contrivances. It works on you slowly, building up throughout the film until it has your affections. The characters are well-defined and the story arc develops in such a genial fashion that it's easy to forgive its overly slow pace. The Emperor's New Clothes keeps the historical details sharp, and director Alan Taylor exhibits a playful side with some amusing choreography (melon vendors preparing their sales, soldiers marching unknowingly past their former leader, etc.) to keep the visuals engaging.

None of it would work, however, without an actor of Holm's caliber as the centerpiece. Holm has played Napoleon before, but never with as much depth or humanity as now (fans of Time Bandits will have fun comparing his broad, farcical turn in that film with the more nuanced character here). He sells the notion of a duplicate quite well -- Napoleon and Eugene are distinctly different characters, even when impersonating each other -- but his true strengths come out in the Emperor's increasingly desperate attempts to prove who he is. We can see his ego, his need to be the center of attention, but also his natural leadership and the noble qualities that led to such devotion in his followers. Holm appears in almost every scene, and unfolds the character's emotional journey with steadfast adroitness.

The most remarkable thing about The Emperor's New Clothes is its sincerity: its utter lack of irony or sarcasm. At times, it waxes a little saccharine, but it believes fervently in its characters and story, and makes us believe in them too. Such earnestness is all too rare these days; rarer still to pull it off without inviting open ridicule. The Emperor's New Clothes respects itself -- and its audience -- enough to play it straight, and reaps the rewards accordingly. Like its protagonist, the film never reaches any lofty heights... but the view it finds is quite agreeable nonetheless.

Review published 06.29.2002.

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