The Emperor's New Clothes

In 1821, Napoleon died in exile on the island of St. Helena. In The Emperor's New Clothes, based on the book The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys, Napoleon escaped to France, replace by an imposter. This imposter died, and the world believed Napoleon passed away. The Emperor's New Clothes is a fanciful what if? scenario, never taking itself too seriously, and extremely enjoyable for its duration. Two good performances by Ian Holm also contribute greatly to the overall feeling of whimsy present. Napoleon (Holm, From Hell, Bless the Child) concocts this elaborate plan to regain power. On St. Helena, he keeps to a rigid schedule to avoid thinking about his exile and predicament. His replacement, Eugene Lenormand (Holm, The Fellowship of the Ring, Joe Gould's Secret), is an incompetent, lower class bum.

Adapters Kevin Molony, Herbie Wave (American Women), and director Alan Taylor (Palookaville, That Burning Question) immediately go about portraying Napoleon as a spoiled brat. He dislikes the name Eugene because it is feminine, and believes that Eugene looks nothing like him. Lenormand is a deck hand on a ship, but Napoleon wishes for a higher station. The ship taking him away doesn't dock at the appointed place, so Napoleon misses his rendezvous. Worse, Lenormand, enjoying his newfound prestige (elegant clothing, plenty of food) refuses to announce he is a fake. So Napoleon, now in France as Lenormand, is effectively trapped. After a while, he ends up at the house of Pumpkin (Iben Hjejle, High Fidelity, Mifune), the widow of one of his trusted aides.

At this point, Napoleon cannot do anything. Announcing who he is will cause people to think he is insane, so he plays along. However, he is a cunning tactician, and immediately begins acting like a mini-dictator. When Pumpkin cannot sell melons, he formulates a plan of attack to optimally canvas the city and produce the highest profit. It is pure Napoleon on a minute scale. Instead of moving armies, he is moving vendors. He does this because he is powerless to do anything else. All the power he once had is gone, and he needs to find some outlet for his energies. His new life consists of extremely mundane things, and once he helps Pumpkin's business, he begins to realize that he is actually enjoying life. He has a content household, minor economic success, and a budding relationship with a beautiful woman. He also must contend with Dr. Lambert (Tim McInnerny, 102 Dalmatians, Notting Hill), a jealous suitor after Pumpkin's affections. His lust for power rears its ugly head once Lenormand dies, and Napoleon realizes that he is losing.

Holm anchors The Emperor's New Clothes. As the movie progresses, his Napoleon undergoes a definite change. Holm slowly humanizes Napoleon, from a soldier to a caring, gentle father-like figure who misses his son. As Lenormand, his mannerisms are completely different. Lenormand is a lower-class bum, looking for quick buck. Nevertheless, he can think on his feet fast enough to realize the upside of his situation. It would be interesting to see more of Lenormand on St. Helena, but that is not what the story is about. Taylor keeps a light-hearted feel to the movie, even turning it into somewhat of a romantic comedy. This works, because the concept is so odd. Napoleon as the main character in a romantic comedy? Uh, okay. Still, Holm makes it work, and watching his transformation is never less than enjoyable. Also helping the mood is the score by Rachel Portman (Chocolat, The Legend of Bagger Vance), a bouncing, light romp that serves as a nice complement to the overall tone of the film.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 47 minutes, Rated PG for brief language.

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