The clever and delightful "The Emperor's New Clothes" proposes that it was not Napoleon who died on St. Helena on May 5, 1821, but rather a look-alike impostor.
In deftly bringing the Simon Leys novel "The Death of Napoleon" to the screen, director Alan Taylor and his writers persuade us to consider the possibility that the deposed emperor's supporters managed to deliver to St. Helena a double for Napoleon, one lowly Eugene Lenormand, who arrives on the island on the same cargo ship that will transport Napoleon to Brest, from which he is to make his way to Paris.
Napoleon is not happy to assume Lenormand's identity during the voyage, because it means he'll have to work as a deckhand. But after six years in exile, he's confident that through sheer will "and the love of the people," he will regain his lost empire.
"What if" premises require viewers to suspend belief, but this picture, with its wit and sophistication, makes it easy. No sooner does a loyal Napoleon aide remark that he looks the same now as in a portrait painted years earlier than Napoleon complains about how old Lenormand looks. Napoleon's vanity is amusingly revealed, for Napoleon and his double are played by the same actor, the estimable Ian Holm, for whom "The Emperor's New Clothes" represents a tour de force.
After an inevitably melancholy stopover in Waterloo, Napoleon makes his way to Paris to the townhouse of a loyalist, Lt. Truchaut, only to find him laid out in a coffin. The lieutenant's attractive Dutch-born widow (Iben Hjejle), who has the curious nickname Pumpkin and is facing bankruptcy, is none too enthusiastic about taking in this middle-aged man with a commanding manner whose true identity is unknown to her.
A turning point soon arrives for the former emperor. He faces the prospect of living the rest of his life as someone he's never been: an ordinary man. He could salvage the deceased Truchaut's failing greengrocery and win his widow's heart as well. But what of his dream of imperial conquest, as unrealistic as it seems? And what of Lenormand, carrying on in his place back on St. Helena?
The film unfolds with an inspired flow of twists and turns that holds promise for the one thing Napoleon did not count on: a confrontation with himself and the military ambitions so costly to France and its citizens.
As Napoleon, Holm shows us a man of vaulting, though wounded, ego whose pomposity can reach proportions of unintended hilarity, a brilliant if flawed leader of men haunted by sorrow and defeats. Yet he's resilient enough to begin a new life with a different identity, provided he doesn't succumb to delusions of grandeur. Holm's Eugene, in the meantime, amusingly takes to the role of Napoleon more fully than his aides had in mind.
Hjejle's Pumpkin is a strong, warm woman whose husband not only was off at war for much of their marriage but who also couldn't make a go of civilian life. The film has a large and substantial supporting cast, but Napoleon and Pumpkin dominate the action.
"The Emperor's New Clothes" might not have gotten off the ground if not for the cost-saving resourcefulness of distinguished veteran production designer Andrea Chrisanti, who blended various authentic period settings in and around Turin and other Italian and Maltese locales, all of which have been photographed gloriously by Alessio Gelsini Torresi.
Sergio Ballo's costumes have the look of authentic clothing, realistically reflecting the characters' wide range in social status. Rachel Portman's score, at once romantic, majestic and vital, completes this beguiling film.
MPAA rating: PG, for brief language. Times guidelines: A knowledge of history is helpful.
'The Emperor's New Clothes'
Ian Holm...Napoleon/Eugene Lenormand
Iben Hjejle...Pumpkin Truchaut
Tim McInnerny...Dr. Lambert
A Paramount Classics release of a Filmfour and Redwave presentation in association with Senator Film of a Redwave production. Director Alan Taylor. Producer Umberto Pasolini. Executive producers Paul Webster, Hanno Huth, Roberto Cicutto. Screenplay Kevin Molony, Alan Taylor and Herbie Wave; adapted from the novel "The Death of Napoleon" by Simon Leys. Cinematographer Alessio Gelsini Torresi. Editor Masahiro Hirakubo. Music Rachel Portman. Costumes Sergio Ballo. Production designer Andrea Chrisanti. Art director Carlo Rescigno. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
At selected theaters.