Playing both roles in an actor’s field day, Ian Holm switches deftly from the kindly peasant who acquires arrogance to the emperor who learns humility.
THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES
An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis
The Emperor’s New Clothes runs straight from a sublime premise to a delicious ending. The exiled emperor Napoleon has one last grand plan up his sleeve. What might have happened, the movie asks, if a ship’s crewman had traded places with Napoleon on Elba? Might the emperor have engineered a return to glory in France?
Because Napoleon is one historical figure whose image can be caught with a few brushstrokes, Director Alan Taylor and an expert cast have plenty of historical freedom to spin a fantasy from their premise. Spin it they do, with originality and a great sense of fun. This movie is a gift of undiluted pleasure.
And so we watch a man who can be caught by the arrogance of his gait alone become a peasant wrapped in gentle qualities. The gentle peasant, on the other hand, gets a taste of the luxurious exile on Elba. What to Napoleon (Ian Holm) was “This awful rock,” is to Eugene Lenormand ( Ian Holm) a heavenly gift. “That man has been emperor for 18 years while I have been scrubbing the decks of his ships,” Eugene whines as he settles into the controlled elegance of another man’s exile.
Playing both roles in an actor’s field day, Ian Holm switches deftly from the kindly peasant who acquires arrogance to the emperor who learns humility. Presented with such a chance, Mr. Holm can barely contain his glee. He fairly wallows in the pleasures of comic irony.
Director Taylor explores not only the personalities of Napoleon and Lenormand, but also the everyday life of Paris in 1821. Beautifully photographed, the film plows along without the usual jarring contemporary sights and sounds that so often diminish period pieces.
Strutting back and forth with impossible bravado as he works out the details, Napoleon initiates his ambitious scheme. In a flash he becomes unnaturally and endearingly ordinary and human as Lenormand – with marvelous lapses when circumstance calls forth his true nature. His lecture to the fruit sellers of Paris, for instance, on how best to take advantage of the weather to increase their sales is the inspired instinct of a true commander. Directed toward fruit or war, this man has one essential spirit.
When the phony Napoleon dies on St. Helena, the real one faces the problem of convincing the woman he now loves, Pumpkin (Iben Hjejle), and all of Paris – that he is indeed who he says he is. Thinking him delusional, Pumpkin tries to protect him from derision. As Napoleon stands by, Pumpkin cries out, “Eugene is everything to me, I hate Napoleon!” What a pickle.
The grand wit of this movie turns entirely on the ironies of the common man adopting the culture of luxury and power, and the emperor testing the attitudes of ordinary life. Napoleon has assumed not just the colors of humility, but the rewards. What a movie.
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