Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Emperor's New Clothes (2002) Film Review
The Emperor's New Clothes
Reviewed by: Monica Wolfe Murray
What do you say when someone declares, "You know that brilliant story you couldn't put down? Well, it didn't end like that. Go back and see for yourself... there's more."? Do you feel the breath of anticipation, the breeze of excitement, a purr of pleasure?
It is here, in the cinema, where you come across the exiled emperor Napoleon (Ian Holm) on the cliffs at St Helena, turning his gaze, once more, towards France. YESS!! Le Petit Caporal is not finished yet. Throw away the history books. It seems they missed a whole chapter.
You already know that you've walked into the right screen at the multiplex tonight...
And you will not be disappointed, unless you want 19th century battle scenes, horses galloping, crude military surgery, glory and gore - there's none of that. This film is a pure, gentle, unabating delight.
Six years into his exile, Napoleon Bonaparte changes places with a former sergeant and galley hand Eugene Lenormand and sails back to France. Once there, he will reveal the plot and return to power, but things don't always go according to plan, do they?
His journey is longer and more trying, ending up in the arms of Nicole "Pumpkin" Truchaut (Iben Hjejle), a Parisian fruit merchant's widow, whilst his lookalike on St Helena begins to enjoy the life of a retired emperor.
The film continually and cleverly explores the line between fiction and reality, falsehood and authenticity. On his journey back to France, Napoleon passes Waterloo, now a busy tourist attraction. At an inn, called La Belle Alliance, he complains: "They've changed my battlefield," and the waitress urges him to take a guide: "They make it come alive." He sees a note over a bed - "The emperor enjoyed a restful sleep here" - shakes his head, not true, and then falls asleep, making it true.
And so fiction comes alive and reality blurs. The fake Bonaparte sips champagne and dictates the emperor's memoirs, presumably from a vast archive of army gossip and legend, as Napoleon walks into an asylum, full of lunatics, who all believe they are Napoleon.
A new acquaintance discovers the truth, but, out of jealousy, says nothing, condemning the emperor to the prison of a borrowed identity. Pumpkin, faced with a similar revelation, declares that she cannot love Napoleon ("He has filled France with widows and orphans") but is devoted to Lenormand, the humble fake.
The genuine Bonaparte is to lead one more campaign, saving Pumpkin's failing business, selling melons in the lethargic Parisian summer. He covers the walls in maps of the city. Plans the strategy. Gathers the vendors. His shadow grows against the wall. He does what he does best, puts fire into men's hearts, plants the seeds of war. Sends them forth at dawn. Waits in a cafe for reports of the day's progress. As melons roll down the streets of Paris, he senses victory.
But the greater battle, fought somewhere else, deeper down, is between Napoleon's dream of new glory and the simple, peaceful life he has inadvertently stumbled upon. Between love and ambition. Between a humble anonymous destiny and the heights of perilous power. Between Lenormand and Bonaparte.
Napoleon makes his choice...
Ian Holm is superb. He is tense and focused, glowing with penetrating intensity, full of military wisdom ("A precise routine dissolves the days"; "An army depends less upon its numbers than upon its spirit"), too blinded by the shock of finding himself trapped in a false identity to notice that he is actually happy. On the other hand, as Lenormand, he seems bemused by his success, impersonating an emperor, while visibly gaining in confidence and acquiring a certain air of arrogance
Kevin Molony's script, based on a novel by Simon Leys, is clever and subtle, but the title comes across as awkward, the only fake in the ensemble. Why borrow the name of a children's story? Call it anything else - After Helena? The Last Campaign? The Fruit Emperor?
The history book remains unchanged, but, with this beautiful story in mind, becomes at last bearable.Reviewed on: 29 Jan 2004