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The Emperor Strikes Out 

Ian Holm's kinder, gentler Napoleon is forced to discover life after defeat

Wednesday, Jun 26 2002
There are a few dubious claims impacting upon the popular perception of the life and death of Napoleon Bonaparte. Despite the legend, he wasn't -- at 5 feet 6 inches -- particularly short. He was also more than just the sturdy product of military training at Brienne and Paris, considering that his Corsican mother adamantly disciplined him well into his teens. Most surprising of all, while in final exile on the island of St. Helena, he may not have died of "stomach upset" but -- as some historians suggest -- of poisoning. Then again, as posited by novelist Simon Leys (The Death of Napoleon) and director Alan Taylor (director of some of the coolest contemporary television, including Six Feet Under and The Sopranos), he may not have died at all -- at least not as we suspect. Their delightful fiction, The Emperor's New Clothes, allows Napoleon to live on, undertaking his life's most challenging campaign, seeking happiness as a common man.

Sir Ian Holm has portrayed Napoleon twice before, dramatically in the romantic 1974 miniseries Napoleon and Love, and hilariously in Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits ("Zat's what I like! Leetle theengs heeting each ozzer!"). Although there have been about 200 other actors (plus the odd pig) delivering the tics of France's famed emperor, Holm -- at 60 with hair perfectly coiffed and dyed black -- delivers the role with unquestionable authority. The Brit's accent consistently treads water in the middle of the Channel, and his lively eyes, though not quite as lively as those of his Bilbo Baggins, leave no room for doubt: This is Napoleon, aged to perfection.

The veracity is vital, because in order to enjoy this film we're required to swallow a long line of fanciful implausibilities. Foremost among these is the notion that a few years of luxurious imprisonment off the coast of Angola would erase the memory of Napoleon's face from the whole of Europe. If you can get past that obstacle, there's the emperor's far-fetched plot to switch places with a look-alike sailor named Eugene (also Holm, who amusingly dismisses himself as looking nothing like himself). Finally, we must contend with the concept of the meticulously detail-oriented Napoleon segueing into a period remake of The Accidental Tourist, discovering himself anew with a struggling single mother and a convenient son to replace his own. If you're ready for that, by all means dig in.

The unlikely name of Pumpkin (Iben Hjejle of High Fidelity) is bestowed upon the mother in question, and she represents the simple, earnest love that can bring an imperial mind to its senses. For much of this film, Napoleon is something of a spoiled brat, impatient and accustomed to absolute power, but in Pumpkin's good graces (and in her four-poster bed, topped with a gilded eagle), he moves extremely gradually toward life beyond royal privilege. This relationship is quite tenuous at first, but when it's expressed that Pumpkin's late husband marched under Napoleon in Egypt, their worlds suddenly and directly connect.

Given that half a million people died under Napoleon's command, it's a little weird to embrace him romantically (it's akin to giving Darth Vader a hug after "that Alderaan slip-up"). Nonetheless, Taylor (with co-screenwriters Kevin Molony and Herbie Wave) is leading his own conquest upon Merchant-Ivory territory here, and the movie is so entrancingly beautiful to behold that disbelief -- and even scorn -- are suspended with ease. Shots of Notre Dame and Versailles are as lush as can be, and Rachel Portman's string-heavy score transforms the film into an instant classic.

The only significant flaw of The Emperor's New Clothes is its pacing, which is almost ostentatiously languid. Holm's passions are stunning (especially when he leads local melon merchants in a sales campaign on the Paris streets), and Hjejle perfectly complements him in her moments of disbelief and rage. Nonetheless, the film's somewhat staid stateliness may weary some viewers, unless they adapt their expectations to glowing frames and elegantly modulated performances, including the superb Tim McInnerny as Pumpkin's perplexed protector, Dr. Lambert; fine newcomer Giovanni Gianasso as her son, Philippe; plus a brilliant host of veterans, including Tom Watson, Nigel Terry, and Clive Russell.

As Napoleon has transcended history to become the stuff of legend, his spirit has flown into all sorts of unlikely hosts, and here we behold -- with some degree of horror -- the first. It's only when the emperor finally releases his grand designs on reclaiming his lost throne and trades in his nostalgia for a present with Pumpkin that he truly breaks free of his imprisonment. In tampering with history, these storytellers present to us a rare and wonderful case of enlightenment beyond the accepted truth.

About The Author

Gregory Weinkauf


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