The Emperor's New Clothes
directed by Alan Taylor
(Paramount, 2001)

There's nothing new about the plot of The Emperor's New Clothes, a 2001 film about Napoleon. You've seen it before: the king and a commoner change places and each lives a life to which he is unaccustomed. But this is a movie that proves it's possible to use a well-used theme and make something wholly new and clever out of it.

Much of that wit is thanks to Ian Holm (who's making something new here out of Napoleon, a role he played at least once before, in 1981's Time Bandits). Much of the vision is thanks to the collaboration of director Alan Taylor and cinematographer Alessio Gelsini Torresi, who open the film with a beautiful, golden scene and rarely stray from that standard.

Holm may be earning an incredible amount of international recognition as Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings, but this small film, with his portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte, is no less deserving of attention.

Here's the basic premise: Everyone knows after Napoleon lost at Waterloo he was banished to St. Helena, where he died May 5, 1821, after six long years of exile. Or did he?

No, says The Emperor's New Clothes. Commoner Eugene Lenormand, an able-bodied seaman, is recruited to take Napoleon's place on St. Helena. He's smuggled ashore and the grand emperor is shipped off belowdecks, back to France, where a network of loyalists stands ready to smuggle him into Paris. There, they assume, the French will rise up to again acclaim him, Lenormand will admit he's an impostor and the reign of Napoleon can begin anew.

But just a minute. The ship carrying Napoleon passes by the French coast and ends up instead in Belgium. There's no one there, of course to guide him back to Paris.

And back on St. Helena, Lenormand (also played by Holm) has decided that Napoleon's had quite enough time as a conquering emperor, thank you; it's time for this common man to be Napoleon.

When the time comes, his French handlers say, to come clean with the British guards, this impostor refuses to admit he's not the former emperor. "I've no idea what you're talking about," he says, calming sinking back into his bath, drink firmly in hand and bicorn military hat firmly on head.

The French assistants are apoplectic at the thought of this sailor taking Napoleon's place, and frantic to find out what's happened to the real guy. Napoleon, meanwhile, has made his way to France only to find his contact has dropped dead. He finds room and board with the widow, who runs a sort of shelter for French war veterans, and slowly begins to be drawn into the lives of common French men and women. And though he's falling in love with the widow Pumpkin (Iben Hjejle, High Fidelity), Napoleon certainly hasn't lost sight of his throne.

It's here that the questions posed in The Emperor's New Clothes really begin to come home to roost: What if Napoleon cannot convince anyone of his real identity? What if Lenormand is never rooted out for who he really is? It's a flight of fancy on the conflict between love and glory, and it asks whether it's more courageous to fight for what you had or to be truly happy with what you have.

And Holm, and the film, do it all with a twinkle in the eye, with an affectionate attention to the throwaway details and with a surprising humor that make The Emperor's New Clothes a rich jewel at your video store.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 10 October 2003

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