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"THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES"
(2002) (Ian Holm, Iben Hjeile) (PG)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: After years of exile following his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon sneaks his way back to France in hopes of regaining control of his country, only to have his plan complicated by a body double who decides he isn't through posing as the Emperor.
PLOT:
It's been six years since Napoleon Bonaparte's (IAM HOLM) defeat at Waterloo, and the former emperor has spent all of the time exiled on the Island of St. Helena under the supervision of British military forces led by Captain Nicholls (BOB MASON). While surrounded by a devoted staff of fellow exiled Frenchman, Napoleon longs to return to his land and reclaim it as his.

Being located in the south Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by British forces obviously makes that near impossible, but the Emperor's men have concocted a plan that just might work. It seems they've found a near look-alike man in the form of Eugene (IAM HOLM), a less than polished commoner and lifelong crewman on the Emperor's fleet.

Believing they can fool Nicholls and his men with Eugene long enough for the Emperor to return to France, they set the plan into motion with Napoleon serving as a galley hand onboard a ship ready to set sail. Unfortunately for him, the captain decides not to land in France, but instead docks some ways away. Needing to maintain his low profile, the Emperor then sets out on foot and by carriage for Paris, only to be disheartened to learn that his former exploits and battlefields have been turned into tourist attractions.

More trouble is brewing back on St. Helena where Eugene has decided he likes playing the Emperor and will not go along with revealing the ruse. Since he's a spitting image of Napoleon, none of the Emperor's men have any recourse. Meanwhile, Napoleon finally makes it to Paris where he meets the recent widow, Pumpkin (IBEN HJEJLE), of one of his former military officers.

A watermelon seller, Pumpkin doesn't initially like Napoleon - who's going by the name of Eugene - particularly when she's concerned about having all of her belongings repossessed and having to care for Gerard (TOM WATSON), a young orphan.

From that point on, and as Napoleon awaits news of the St. Helena ruse to be delivered so that he can regain control of his country, he finds himself falling for Pumpkin and vice-versa, much to the dismay of a local physician, Dr. Lambert (TIM McINNERNY), who's patiently been waiting on the sidelines for his chance at romance with her.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
I've always been intrigued by the fact that as recently as the 1940s, most people in the U.S. - where freedom of the press is an important facet of our society and everyday life - were still in the dark about their leaders. Specifically, I'm referring to the fact that few Americans knew that F.D.R. spent most of his time in a wheelchair.

Of course, such lack of knowledge is still the case in some developing countries. Yet, with the development here of sensationalistic media and its quest to dig up every little fact and aspect about everyone's lives, such secrets are difficult if not impossible to keep in today's information age. Way back when, however, and before the advent of the Internet, TV, films or still photography, most citizens had no idea what their leader or ruler looked like.

That would have obviously afforded them some privacy should they have decided to get out among the masses. Yet, it also could have created some difficulty for them if separated from their entourage who would have been the only ones who could have verified their identity.

That's part of the fun premise behind "The Emperor's New Clothes," a light romantic comedy that poses the question of what if Napoleon Bonaparte didn't die in exile on the island of St. Helena, but rather snuck away and tried to reclaim his country all while a decoy assumed his prisoner role to fool everyone until the time was right to reveal the ruse.

Such a ploy wouldn't work today since most everyone knows the face of their leader (or let's hope that's the case), but back then most people only knew of Napoleon by word of his diminutive size, trademark hat and the old hand in the shirt stance.

Setting the story six year after the Emperor's defeat at Waterloo, director Alan Taylor ("Palookaville) and screenwriter Kevin Molony (making his noteworthy debut) - who work from the imaginative and amusing notion based on author Simon Leys' novel "The Death of Napoleon - take full advantage of that fact.

They do so not only in staging the film's various moments of comic misfortune, but also the knowledge that Napoleon previously escaped from exile on St. Alba before Waterloo, thus making the premise that much more plausible. None of the material is of the "Omigosh I'm gonna bust a gut because it's so hilarious" variety, but the filmmakers do maintain an amusing tone throughout the production.

The film does take a turn for the better when the Emperor's decoy and body double decides he should be the real Napoleon, thus throwing a major comedic monkey wrench into the carefully thought out plan designed by Napoleon and his fellow co-conspirators.

The result is an entertaining and fairly enjoyable diversion that starts out like something of a modified road trip movie - as Napoleon tries to make his way across the land and sea to Paris - that then finally settles down into a pleasant drama/comedy hybrid that occasionally exudes the feel of an old Peter Sellers effort when not being something of a sweet little love story.

Much of that's due to the dual role setup. Playing both the resourceful and determined but repeatedly stymied emperor, as well as his power hungry, identical decoy, Ian Holm ("The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring," "From Hell") is a great deal of fun to watch, and the actor plays both parts to near perfection.

While the real life man probably wasn't the most likable or sympathetic person, Holm imbues him and his double with enough winning and often funny characteristics to make the viewer care about his character. The only real complaint one can lodge is that we don't get enough scenes with the double back on St. Helena, although what's present is quite entertaining.

Iben Hjejle ("High Fidelity," "Mifune") is rather good as the widow who befriends and eventually falls for him, and she gets the film's best dramatic moments when she's alone with her dead husband and later when she states that she doesn't want to lose another man to Napoleon (not being aware of the irony of such a statement). Meanwhile, Tom Watson ("The Good Ship Citizen") and Tim McInnerny ("102 Dalmatians," "Notting Hill") are good in their supporting roles, but this is really Holm's picture.

Production values are good with terrific costuming, design, cinematography and various parts of Italy decently standing in for France and other locales. While some viewers may find the film slow or uneventful in an art house type of way, and the comedy perhaps a bit too dry for their tastes, I found all of it rather delightful and can only imagine that viewers looking for an intelligent and heartfelt little "dramedy" will feel the same. "The Emperor's New Clothes" thus rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed June 19, 2002 / Posted June 28, 2002


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