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'Emperor's New Clothes, The'

Napoleonic 'Emperor's New Clothes' a sly comedy in disguise

Saturday, July 13, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

In the "What If...?" Department, nothing beats the immortal "Saturday Night Live" entry, "What If Eleanor Roosevelt Could Fly?" But "The Emperor's New Clothes" comes close.

 
 
"The Emperor's
New Clothes"

RATING: PG for brief language.

STARRING: Ian Holm, Iben Hjejle and Tim McInnerny.

DIRECTOR: Alan Taylor

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

The premise of director Alan Taylor's sumptuous historical epic is that Napoleon, exiled after Waterloo and confined for life to the island of St. Helena, did NOT in fact die there in 1821, as history naively believes. No such prosaic end for Bonaparte: Rather, the Little Corporal masterminded a brilliant escape whereby his loyalists smuggled in a double and smuggled out the emperor for his triumphant return to Paris and reconquest of France.

You read it first here. Or, rather, there in Simon Leys' novel, "The Death of Napoleon," from which the screenplay by Taylor, Kevin Molony and Herbie Wave was adapted.

The French will read about it soon in the broadsheets, as soon as he emerges from hiding to get them revolting again. But he's no spring poule any more, he's taking his good old imperial time to readjust, and he runs into some unexpected snags.

Cherchez la femme, for one -- a femme named Pumpkin (Iben Hjejle). And cherchez her jealous suitor, Dr. Lambert (Tim McInnerny), who is cherchezing our Napoleon (Ian Holm) to put him in a loony bin with all the nut cases who THINK they're Napoleon.

Take a moment to digest this, please. Then consider the viewers' dilemma: Usually, except for Mel Brooks and Monty Python, sweeping historical epics are serious business. This one is pretty far-fetched, all right, but it is realistically and soberly unfolded from the beginning, with lavish production values. Now and then, some heavyhanded jokes make it seem like a comedy (as when he wakes up in a roadside inn and notices the "Napoleon Slept Here" sign over his bed). For that matter, the film's title itself is a joke.

But the problem is not that "The Emperor's New Clothes" sometimes seems like a comedy. The problem -- not discovered until reading the studio press kit -- is that it IS a comedy! Of "errors," to be precise. The producers tell us so.

I thought I was watching a drama with gags. Instead, it was a gag with drama. I think.

Never mind what I think or thought. But I think Holm thought he was doing Napoleon straight. In any case, he does him quite wonderfully and for the most part convincingly, on the order of Sean Connery's long-in-the-tooth Robin Hood from "Robin & Marian."

The lovely Hjejle is equally serious and believable in her role, ably supported by the fine young 11-year-old, Tom Watson, who plays a soulful orphan and -- with his magic lantern slideshow of Napoleon's life -- serves as the film's framing device. And look for the hilarious Murray Melvin romping gaily as Nappy's fey, adoring biographer.

But if this thing is a comedy, nobody told production designer Andrea Chrisanti or cinematographer Alessio Torresi. Every shot is a gorgeous picture-postcard composition derived from relevant paintings of David, Chardin and the post-Napoleonic period of Seurat. One particularly breathtaking slow-zoom, dolly-down shot through the wooden floorboards of Pumpkin's upper room is to die for. Every detail is artful, correct and evocative. So is composer Rachel Portman's old-fashioned "adventure music," a la MGM of yore.

And then all of a sudden, the dream snaps, Napoleon and Pumpkin get domestic, it turns into "The Jours of Our Vie" -- and you suspect Lucy and Desi might be hovering around the corner.

I don't know exactly what God and director Taylor ("The Sopranos," "The West Wing") hath wrought here. Take Abel Gance's or the late great Rod Steiger's Napoleons for powerful history. But this "reimagined" hybrid is great fun and a hoot to watch on the way to its Waterloo.

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