Movie Review: The Emperor's New Clothes
By Loren King, Special to the Chicago Tribune
One of the most clever, most enjoyable historical fantasies to hit screens in a long time, "The Emperor's New Clothes" is a sumptuous showcase for Ian Holm, who delivers not one but two great performances: as the exiled megalomaniacal emperor and as the commoner who impersonates him.
Adapted from Simon Leys' novel "The Death of Napoleon," the script wittily plays with the public's long-held fascination with enigmatic Napoleon, arguably the most written-about, speculated-about figure in history. The film enriches this complex web of truth and myth by weaving deft romantic comedy, history and even a dazzling, poignant bit of psychology into this delightful period piece.
The story begins on St. Helena, where Napoleon Bonaparte has been exiled since his defeat at Waterloo. Frustrated at his impotence, the defiant emperor conspires with a band of loyalists to return to Paris and reclaim his throne. The group hatches a plan to have a look-alike deckhand, Eugene, pose as Napoleon at St. Helena while the real general assumes the identity of Eugene and stows away on a Paris-bound ship.
The "what if?" parlor game is smartly executed by the writers and director Alan Taylor. The proud emperor struggles with the humiliation of having to portray a mere commoner, arriving in Paris at dawn and strolling wistfully past the lush Palace of Versailles, barely containing his anger and ambition.
His stand-in, meanwhile, is enjoying his meaty role as the emperor, barking orders to unsuspecting guards and eating and drinking himself into a decadent stupor. It's a classic role reversal, and the film unspools the comic and dramatic underpinnings of its "The Prince and the Pauper" with great style, aided by lovely cinematography, period details and a terrific international cast.
The real Napoleon cannot reveal himself to the Parisians few have ever even seen his likeness because his substitute refuses to give up the charade.
There's sly humor in the spectacle of this once-powerful ruler reduced to accepting a bed and a meal from a poor but kindly (not to mention gorgeous) young widow, Pumpkin (Iben Hjejle), who runs a fruit and vegetable cart. In one of the film's best moments, the restless Napoleon takes charge of the village's produce vendors and wows them with his use of intricate military strategy to mobilize them in marketing and distributing their goods through the streets of Paris.
The film is undermined a bit by the rather bland romantic conventions of the blossoming relationship between the emperor and Pumpkin. But Holm's perfect performance keeps this film from ever becoming tepid or too predictable. In one pivotal scene, the film has delicious fun with what is now commonly referred to as a Napoleon Complex. It's one of many moments in which "The Emperor's New Clothes" manages to turn the diminutive historical figure into a dynamic and offbeat summer-movie hero.
"The Emperor's New Clothes"
Directed by Alan Taylor; written by Kevin Molony, Alan Taylor, Herbie Wave; photographed by Alessio Gelsini Torresi; edited by Masahiro Hirakubo; music by Rachel Portman; production designed by Andrea Chrisanti; produced by Uberto Pasolini. A Paramount Classics release; opens Friday, June 28. Running time: 1:47. MPAA rating: PG (brief language).
Napoleon/Eugene Ian Holm
Pumpkin Iben Hjejle
Dr. Lambert Tim McInnerny
Bertrand Hugh Bonneville
Montholon Nigel Terry