October 28, 2002 -- "The Emperor's New Clothes" is a witty bit of alternate history that is a little too serious to enjoy as a comedy and a little too comedic for a drama, but inspired acting makes this costume period piece a fascinating mix of moods.
Ian Holm ("From Hell") stars in the dual roles of Napoleon Bonaparte and his look-alike, Eugene Lenormand in this tale of exile, based on Simon Leys' novel, The Death of Napoleon. Lenormand is recruited to take the place of the exiled Napoleon on the island of St. Helena after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. The story takes place around 1819 to 1821. Napoleon sneaks off the island and returns to Paris, using Lenormand's identity. The plan is that Lenormand, the impostor, is supposed to announce to the world who he really is. That would allow Napoleon to assume power in Paris and begin his military adventures again. The only trouble is, Lenormand likes his luxurious life of exile and refuses to give it up. Napoleon, furious, waits in Paris in a run-down boarding house operated by a war widow and fruit vendor named Pumpkin, (Iben Hjejle of "High Fidelity"), and waits, and waits.
Napoleon's fall to the rank of commoner is played to the hilt by Holm. At first, he doesn't like anything about Lenormand's life, not even the name. Slowly, he begins to realize the pleasures of his new life as he uses his knowledge of military strategy to win at business wars with competing fruit vendors. He also begins to fall in love with the lovely Pumpkin. At the same time, he begins to learn of the enormous cost of his military campaigns in terms of widows and orphans in France. He still longs for the glory of his former office of emperor, but he does not want to give up the happiness of his new life, either.
Holm and Hjejle are superb in the key roles of the film, ably supported by Tim McInnerny of "102 Dalmations" as Dr. Lambert, Napoleon's romantic rival, and Tom Watson as Gerard, Pumpkin's son. Director Alan Taylor ("Palookaville") and cinematographer Alessio Gelsini Torresi ("Excellent Cadavers"), combine with production designer Andrea Crisanti ("Cinema Paradiso") to give the fantasy a steady, solid, period look, making it seem more realistic that it might otherwise seem. The exterior shots are colorful and the architecture is interesting to look at. There are some wonderful scenic shots filmed outdoors and at sea. The movie was filmed in Italy, including Rome, Turin and Tarquinia, and in Malta's harbor. It is filmed in English, not French. Rachel Portman's score is sumptious. A unique, and not always successful mixture of comedy and drama, this is an interesting film that puts a new spin on the notion that rulers are often out of touch with their subjects. It also puts forth the proposition that the rich are not necessarily happier than the poor. This film rates a B.
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