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EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES, THE(director/writer: Alan Taylor; screenwriters: from a novel “The Death of Napoleon” by Simon Leys/Kevin Molony; cinematographer: Alessio Gelsini Torresi; editor: Masahiro Hirakubo; music: Rachel Portman; cast: Ian Holm (Napoleon Bonaparte/ Eugene Lenormand), Iben Hjejle (Pumpkin Truchaut), Tim McInnerny (Dr. Lambert), Tom Watson (Gerard), Bob Mason (Captain Nicholls), Hugh Bonneville (Bertrand); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Umberto Pasolini; Paramount Classics; 2001/UK)
“A nifty premise turns into a ridiculous film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A nifty premise turns into a ridiculous film. Ian Holm was handed an unbearable script that even his thespian skills couldn’t salvage. The more Sir Ian tried, the worse his Napoleon role seemed. The film is based on a new twist placed on history. In reality, Napoleon was exiled to the desolate isle of St. Helena after the British defeated him in 1815. He was imprisoned there for six years and died in incarceration on May 5, 1821. The film has lowly deckhand, Eugene Lenormand (also played by Holm), becoming a Napoleon impostor on St. Helena’s, while the arrogant emperor takes his place mopping the ship decks as he journeys to Brest. The plan is to meet an agent at the French port who will take him to Paris where they will bring the emperor back to his loyalist followers so he can lead his people again to reconquer Europe. The plan will begin to be executed as soon as the impostor declares that he’s a fraud. The reason for all the secrecy is because Napoleon has been betrayed before and now says that he trusts only “My will and the love of the people of France.”

Director/writer Alan Taylor tiresomely brings the Simon Leys novel “The Death of Napoleon” to the screen, as his cleverness fails to unleash too many funny moments or mischief. After the clever idea is executed, there are heavy-handed scenes that fail to have any power or hold any interest. It’s a one-idea film, and that ‘what if joke played on history’ wears thin too quickly.

The cargo ship lands at Antwerp instead of Brest and all the emperor’s plans begin to go bonkers, as does the movie.Napoleon takes a carriage to Paris that stops in Waterloo, now made into a tourist attraction where Napoleon sleeps over in a bed that has a sign over it saying “Napoleon once slept here” and amusingly buys a souvenir of himself. Journeying onto Paris, his carriage is stopped by soldiers and he answers the password “The eagle flies from belfry to belfry” correctly and is promised safe quarters to stay in a Paris slum. His contact is Lieutenant Truchaut, who loyally campaigned with him around the world for 15 of his 18 years as emperor. But the Lieutenant just died and his widow Pumpkin (Iben Hjejle), who is unaware of the stranger’s true identity due to her husband keeping it a secret from everyone, is too impoverished to have him stay in her house for more than a night. To hammer home how poor the beautiful widow is, her furniture is removed the next day because of her debts. But Eugene proves that he can be a shrewd businessman and continues his stay by getting her out of bankruptcy. As a reward he sleeps with her and becomes head of the household to her adopted son, who is about the same age as Napoleon’s real son.

For the viewer to suspend belief and go with this farce, means that this film should maintain a whimsical mood and be light on its feet. But Taylor, known primarily for directing television dramas, and his cowriters Kevin Molony and Herbie Wave, are never able to make things happen that don’t seem leaden. The pacing is off, the acting seemed stilted, and the actors are forced to utter stiff lines. The widow exclaims at one point when Eugene tries to tell her that he’s Napoleon: “I hate Napoleon, he’s filled France with widows and orphans.” Napoleon’s big one-liner is when rallying Pumpkin’s comrades who run a fruit-selling guild that does a poor business to efficiently organize like a military maneuver. He brazenly tells them “We conquer or perish.”

The melancholy sets in when the impostor refuses to reveal that he’s a fraud, because Napoleon’s pampered life as a prisoner is still much better than his ordinary existence as a deckhand. When the impostor suddenly dies the emperor’s plans go kaput. Napoleon is faced with not only no one recognizing or believing him in Paris, but that he will have to live the rest of his life as a common man. The other thing that was hard to swallow was the young attractive widow falling immediately for such a sour-puss of an older man, especially when her old friend and neighbor, the more presentable Dr. Lambert, expressed a desire to court her. Somehow the mistaken identity comedy scenes and the philosophical musings on what makes the ordinary people happy, never came across as amusing or pertinent. It all seemed like a wasted effort, as when in conclusion Sir Ian announces his new plans: “Eugene Lenormand has moved on, he no longer seeks to be emperor.” The point being that Napoleon will now be content to be a shopkeeper and throw snowballs at his new family. Well…this film never got what it could from the premise and should have moved on from that gimmicky theme or had a better script. Perhaps like the not dead Napoleon if Taylor had another chance to do the movie over again, he would wisely choose not to. This genteel farcical stuff is made to order for Monty Python, where it might have worked.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”