Turns out Napoleon didn’t die on St. Helena. That was just some guy who looked like the French ruler. Instead, the emperor was smuggled off his island prison by loyalists who wanted him returned to power. Trouble is, his boat got lost and landed in Belgium, where Napoleon had to hoof it back to Paris—and when he got there, he couldn’t convince anybody he was really Napoleon.
That’s the historical revisionist hook of The Emperor’s New Clothes, a hit-and-miss Francofarce from director Alan Taylor (Palookaville). Based on a smart little 1986 novel by Simon Leys and solidly executed both visually and textually, the film has the unfortunate handicap of being made and acted by people who are more clever than funny. Taylor never figures out whether he wants to make us laugh or make us think—though there are plenty of amusing distractions along the way.
The film revolves around the deadpan brilliance of Ian Holm, the erstwhile Bilbo Baggins who’s busily making his way through history’s greatest short characters. In his third turn as Napoleon, following 1981’s Time Bandits and a miniseries from the ’70s, Holm elegantly captures a mix of imperious disgust and burgeoning amusement as he winds his way through the commoners who refuse to believe their famed ruler is standing right before him. It’s a prince-and-the-pauper trick that’s been done before, but Holm never betrays its familiarity and thereby, keeps it afloat.
After Napoleon is replaced by a drunken, profane sailor (also played by Holm), everything is going fine until the emperor ends up in Belgium. On his way back to Paris, he passes Waterloo and the shops selling Napoleon souvenirs. Later, he visits an inn that promises Napoleon slept there. “I was never here,” Holm says with downbeat perfection.
There’s more trouble in Paris: His loyalist contact has recently died, and the contact’s widow, Pumpkin (Iben Hjejle of High Fidelity), doesn’t believe he’s Napoleon—not even when the emperor organizes her failing melon-selling business along military lines that make her a killing. Meanwhile, the replacement is enjoying the splendor and obsequious deference that comes with being Napoleon—and he’s refusing to reveal himself, as everyone planned.
The film fairly begs to become a flat-out farce, with Holm’s understated preening and Hjejle’s infectious charm setting up several fine turns by wacky supporting players. There’s even a madcap scene in which Holm finds himself in a mental asylum where everybody thinks they’re Napoleon. But Taylor mostly plays it straight, preferring to spend much of the film in Sommersby territory when Life of Brian seems ready to break out. Unfortunately, the picture has no larger purpose to justify such delicate handling. It’s a comedy at its core, but Taylor won’t let it explode.
Taylor, a veteran of HBO shows like Sex and the City and The Sopranos, can’t find a tone to make all this material work, but he shoots one of the most quietly beautiful films in recent memory. It’s mostly TV beauty, with stationary cameras and natural scenery, but Taylor finds a wealth of gorgeous vistas (a sunrise that Napoleon watched from a hammock on his ship, for instance) and films them unobtrusively, building the same sense of quiet wonder in the everyday that begins to fill Napoleon.
There’s plenty to enjoy here, but in its own way, The Emperor’s New Clothes is just as temporary and forgettable as Men in Black II or other summer movies. Aside from its clever central idea, the film’s only conclusion seems to be that even a rapacious ruler like Napoleon would forget about conquering the world if he only had a simple life and the love of a good woman. Josephine, for one, would doubtless take exception to that conclusion—but with a gentle wit and an overall feeling of well-being, Holm’s kinder, gentler Napoleon doesn’t make us feel guilty for enjoying this silly little what-if adventure.