the emperor's new clothes (2002)


director: alan taylor

ian holm, iben hjelje, tim mcinnerny

Films about Napoleon have, generally, tended to be as ambitious as their subject, ranging from Abel Gance's 1927 split-screen epic to technicolour bloaters like War and Peace and Waterloo. Alan Taylor's The Emperor's New Clothes takes a very different path, setting itself after the great battles, in a backstreet of Paris, and starting with the premise: What if Napoleon didn't die in exile on St. Helena?

Ian Holm's Napoleon is a nice physical match, and is the result of two previous shots by the actor at the role, and it shows; Holm slips very happily into the little megalomaniac's skin, making for a fully inhabited character the likes of which is rarely seen onscreen. His Napoleon escapes exile by substituting a look-alike (also played by Holm), setting of for Paris where a network of veterans of his armies are to help him overthrow the government.

The former emperor goes on a humbling journey to Holland as a lowly sailor, and makes an unscheduled carriage stop at the Waterloo battlefield, now a landscaped tourist spot. Finally arriving in Paris, he discovers that the key member of the plot to restore him to power has just died, and he joins with the other veterans in consoling his widow, Pumpkin (Iben Hjelje), forced to continue his charade.

Pumpkin has been left with a failing greengrocer's business, and a shipment of watermelons about to rot in a summer heatwave. Napoleon re-organizes her business as a military campaign, makes the widow a success and, rather inevitably, falls in love. He's still unable to give up his dream of returning to power, though, and upsets Pumpkin as he struts about Paris in his old uniform, which leads to a nicely dramatic sequence where he's forced to confront the proverbial madhouse full of Napoleon imitators, and the consequences of his constant, glorious but awful wars.

The Emperor's New Clothes is a trifle, but it's a lovely one, neat and smart, with a satisfying story arc and wonderful performances by Holm and Hjelje, among others. There's a lot to enjoy in the film, including a delicious fantasy - the fallen dictator forced to face the consequences of his ambition, discovering contrition by being forced into a normal, mundane life.