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The Emperor's New Clothes


The Emperor's New Clothes

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Diminutive in stature yet commanding in his intensity and dramatic presence, Ian Holm seems like the only choice for the role of Napoleon Bonaparte in The Emperor's New Clothes, a light historical fantasy about the fallen leader's days in exile. In a juicy dual role as the emperor and his impostor, Holm carries Napoleon's regal bluster without edging into cartoonish folly, taking him seriously enough to make an absurd situation solemn, and keeping the film from winking too coyly at its audience. But in spite of Holm's expertly controlled performance, co-writer/director Alan Taylor (Palookaville) and his fellow screenwriters don't show anywhere near the same level of commitment and imagination, and they blow an ingenious premise that's rife with comedic possibilities. Opening on the Atlantic island of St. Helena, where Napoleon lived out his final days under British guard, the film posits that it wasn't the emperor who died there, but a double planted as part of a conspiracy to restore Napoleon to the throne. While his stand-in, a lowly commoner named Eugene, assumes his station on St. Helena, Napoleon travels incognito as a below-decks galley-hand on a ship headed for France, with an ironic stop at Waterloo along the way. Napoleon heads into Paris to rally his loyal supporters into a triumphant coup, but his plan derails when he discovers that his chief contact has died. While steeling himself for another rebellion, Napoleon wears out the grudging hospitality of the contact's widow (Mifune and High Fidelity's Iben Hjejle) and leads a community of struggling fruit vendors into the most lucrative sections of the city. Meanwhile, the impostor has taken to his new powers with unexpected zeal, gorging himself on food and drink, verbally abusing his men, and coloring Napoleon's memoirs with tawdry embellishments ("I conquered my Poland of the flesh"). The Emperor's New Clothes scores most of its scattered laughs from silly historical revisionism, placing the straight-faced, arrogant Napoleon in whimsical situations, such as the fruit-cart battalion or the release of his trumped-up memoirs. (Even then, Taylor doesn't reach the inspired heights of the similar Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.) But as Napoleon's relationship with Hjejle starts to evolve, the film flattens into a sentimental romance about his domestication, complete with an unfortunate subplot about his estranged son. In the end, the once-proud leader has been reduced to the impish dimensions of a sitcom character, from Emperor Napoleon to Major Dad.