The Emperor's New Clothes

Identity swap fancy that wisely avoids becoming a farce, a good solid drama with the odd light moment.

Released in 2001, certified UK-PG. Reviewed on 03 Feb 2004 by Scott Morris
The Emperor's New Clothes image

Conventional wisdom holds that after the pint-sized French warmonger Napoleon Bonaparte (Ian Holm) was defeated at Waterloo he was captured and exiled to the small island of St. Helena where he resided until the day he died. This little film asks you to imagine that he formed one last military manoeuvre known as the Man in the Mask gambit, switching places with a lookalike, a certain Sgt. Eugene Lenormand (also Ian Holm). The plan was to have the double reveal his deception after a suitable timeframe, allowing the real Napoleon to show up in Paris with much celebration from the adoring throngs allowing him to regain power and resume his whacky light-hearted Gaullic war antics.

Best laid plans and all that jazz, as Eugene decides he's not quite ready to give up his new-found promotion, forcing Napoleon to lay low in Paris. Heading to a friendly ex-Old Guard members' home, he arrives only to find greengrocer Nicole 'Pumpkin' Truchaut (Iben Hjejle) mourning the death of his would-be contact. Characteristically kind, she offers this 'Eugene Lenormand' character a bed for the night, although this turns into a rather more extended stay after he takes an unscheduled trip (hohoho), spraining his ankle and momentarily knocking him senseless, whereupon he lets slip he's Napoleon to the amusement and disbelief of all.

After his recovery, Napoleon proves himself to be a dab hand at organising Pumpkins' employees into a more effective selling service and earns himself a permanent berth at the Truchaut residence and also the admiring glances of Pumpkin, much to the local doctor her long-time friend Dr. Lambert (Tim McInnerny)'s consternation, hoping that he would be able to get his hands on the greengrocer's melons. While Napoleon grows settled and happy in his new life and new love, things are brought into perspective when the fake Napoleon on St. Helena buys the farm. Without him to deny his identity, how will Napoleon be able to convince the nation he's the real deal in a country with looney bins full of people claiming to be Napoleon? This sudden Imperial revelation proves to be a huge strain on his relationship with Pumpkin.

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I'd posit that this film is another where the trailer proves to be little more than an elaborate deception. It's marketed in the U.K. at least as a light hearted knockabout identity farce by a trailer that seems to be going out of its way to stop you from seeing the film. Thankfully, the real thing is far less atrocious than the trailer would suggest. In fact, it's actually fairly enjoyable. There's a bare minimum of zany madcap antics, and quite a lot of solid character acting from Holm, Hjejle and McInnerny that forms a rather decent drama with a few comic overtones here and there as flavouring around the edges.

Quite where this film has been hiding for the last couple of years is anyone's guess, although no doubt Ian Holm's recent high-profile appearance as Bilbo Baggins in The Lord Of The Rings series proved to be enough to dust it down for a cinema release. With two roles it's very much his show, allowing him space to cut a fine comic character of the formerly downtrodden sergeant now enjoying his time in the sun and the more subdued Napoleon persona. His interaction with Hjejle is rarely less than believable and even manages to be touching on occasion, probably due to a relatively restrained turn from Hjejle where others would have chosen to overplay the histrionics card.

While the supporting cast are rarely called on to do anything spectacular that would make the casual viewer exclaim aloud, it's nonetheless remarkable that none of them do anything that would come close to annoying you. It's rare to find a film that doesn't have any obvious weak links in the extended cast and as such The Emperor's New Clothes deserves that recognition at least. While the script may not ask for the cast to redefine drama, they all handle themselves with dignity and can be proud of their efforts.

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Kudos also to director Alan Taylor, who keeps things fairly brisk and has chosen good locations to echo nineteenth century Paris. Perhaps his most significant decision, and a most welcome one indeed, was the choice of this largely English cast to speak in English throughout without any of the cast affecting a ropy French accent. For too long we've been subjected to, say, German soldiers trudging around talking to each other in 'German' where 'German' actually means 'English, but with every occurrence of 'we' pronounced 've'. This laughable affectation might have worked in 'Ello, 'Ello but it's been a source of irritation in many otherwise competent movies for too long and hopefully something we've seen the back of, given the similar treatment in Girl with a Pearl Earring.

With Napoleon wisely keeping his true identity to himself until the final reels of the movie, the film neatly avoids degenerating into Holm wandering about shouting "I'm Napoleon!" and everyone laughing at him. On finally revealing this to Pumpkin, her reaction is colored more by her distaste for Napoleon's past behaviour than concern for his mental health, although this unavoidably plays a part later. Events are handled by Taylor in a way that provokes sympathy rather than laughter and derision, and the movie is all the better for it.

The casual reader would glance over this fairly glowing review and wonder how it ties in with the fairly average star rating, and they'd be right to do so. I can't really think of too many negative things to say about it. It's not action packed, but it's not an action film. It's not laugh out loud funny, but it's not an out and out comedy. There's a lot to recommend in it, but ultimately it's just not enjoyable enough to earn itself anything more than an average mark. No great shame in that, and in fact thanks to an utterly dismal run of films infesting our cinemas of late it's actually one of the better ways to spend your fiver.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.

Alan Taylor
Cast list:
Ian Holm (Napoleon Bonaparte/Sgt. Eugene Lenormand)
Iben Hjejle (Nicole 'Pumpkin' Truchaut)
Tim McInnerny (Dr. Lambert)
Nigel Terry (Montholon)
Hugh Bonneville (Bertrand)
Murray Melvin (Antommarchi)
Eddie Marsan (Louis Marchand)
Clive Russell (Sgt. Justin Bommel)
Bob Mason (Captain Nicholls)
Niall O'Brien (Bosun)