In a role he seems physically born to play, British actor Ian Holm brings humor and pathos to Napoleon Bonaparte in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” This jokey, what-if costumer — which posits that it was Boney’s double, not the man himself, who died under British guard on St. Helena island — is pleasant rather than rollicking entertainment and will need a hard sell to make much theatrical impact, despite a good script and performances. Pic, which world preemed in Locarno’s Piazza Grande to a decent reception, looks likely to have a longer career on the small screen.
Cheeky intro notes how, after being defeated by the British and Prussians at Waterloo, Napoleon died in May 1821 on an isle in the middle of the Atlantic — “or so the history books tell us…” In a scene that only makes sense at the very end, Napoleon (Holm) enters a house where a young boy (Tom Watson) is watching a slide show of his career and states, “Let me tell you what really happened.”
Loosely based on Simon Leys’ novel, “The Death of Napoleon,” script flashbacks to Boney in his bath, where he’s already getting antsy after six years of house arrest and English cooking. In between dictating his memoirs to a louche aide (Murray Melvin), he’s concocted a plan with his sidekicks (Hugh Bonneville, Nigel Terry) and valet (Eddie Marsan) to plant a double (Holm again) in his place and secretly escape to Paris. There, he’ll rally his supporters and reclaim his rightful position as emperor of France.
Despite reservations over whether his disheveled double is up to the role, Napoleon successfully steals onboard a ship, posing as a galley hand, Eugene Lenormand. Unfortunately, the ship changes course and lands him in Belgium, necessitating an ego-bruising journey by barge and coach to Paris. In one lovely sequence that demonstrates the pic’s fresh take on the realities of life at the time, he stops off at Waterloo, where hawkers are selling tourist trinkets and he’s forced to sleep over at an inn in a bed marked “Emperor Napoleon slept here.”
Beneath its lightly comic surface, the movie quickly develops into an acute, unshowy study of the transparency of power and its trappings. In Paris, Napoleon arrives to discover his contact, Truchaut, has just died; Truchaut’s widow, Pumpkin (Danish actress Iben Hjelje, from “Mifune” and “High Fidelity”), is in debt and only grudgingly offers Napoleon accommodation when he falls and injures himself.
Napoleon can’t reveal his true identity until his double does the same; but back on St. Helena, the latter — in some enjoyably oafish playing by Holm — is starting to enjoy his new life a bit too much. So, in Paris, Napoleon kills time by organizing Pumpkin and her fellow melon-sellers into a profitable business carried out with military precision. But as time drags on, and affection grows between him and Pumpkin, it becomes doubtful if Napoleon’s plan will ever succeed.
Final reels, where Napoleon’s dilemma is thrown into sharp focus by Pumpkin’s love for “Eugene,” are particularly well scripted. “I offer you a world and you fail to believe me?” moans Boney. “I hate Napoleon,” replies Pumpkin. “He filled France with widows and orphans … I won’t let him take you.”
Helped by understated playing from Holm and the quietly forceful Hjelje, American director Alan Taylor brings to the material the same mixture of charm and poignancy he showed in the 1995 “Palookaville.” (Both pics also share the same producer, Uberto Pasolini, from “The Full Monty.”) But though occasional sequences spring to life and Rachel Portman’s busy score works overtime while Taylor’s direction does justice to the literate script, the movie as a whole lacks the brio and visual lavishness needed to sell costumers to contempo auds.
Production and costume design by the largely Italian crew — pic shot in Malta, Italy and Cinecitta Studios, with Turin and Tarquinia doubling for Paris — is realistically mounted but within obvious budgetary limitations.
Other technical credits are solid, though pic’s multiple endings could do with another session from Masahiro Hirakubo’s editing shears.