- The Washington Times - Friday, June 28, 2002

"The Emperor's New Clothes" attempts to rewrite history with a whimsically debunking twist.

The gesture would be easier to embrace if it resulted in a movie as clever and enjoyable as, say, "The Emperor's New Groove."

This emperor is Napoleon, supposedly encountered in the aftermath of his fatal exile to the island of St. Helena after the decisive battlefield defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The historical Napoleon died six years later of an undetermined stomach ailment, possibly caused by systematic arsenic poisoning.

That line of speculation, revived in a best seller of the 1980s, failed to result in a movie once envisioned for Jack Nicholson. "New Clothes" derives from a novel by Simon Leys that prefers another line of speculation: Napoleon, played by Ian Holm, succeeded in escaping from St. Helena, as he had from Elba during a previous exile, but back on French soil, he was unable to rally another French army.

Two factors conspire against him. A double named Eugene, an opportunistic deckhand who happens to be a ringer for the emperor, persists in sustaining the St. Helena imposture. Meanwhile, the authentic Napoleon finds it difficult to convince the countrymen he encounters that he's the real deal or that enlisting in another crusade for glory would be desirable. Swallowing his pride, he settles for obscure contentment as the king of produce in Paris, domiciled with a sensible consort called Pumpkin, whose imperial tastes are confined to bedroom furniture.

The key weakness of the movie is that the premise sounds more amusing and appealing than it plays. "New Clothes" succeeds only in the episodes that depict Napoleon's return in its early stages. Still incognito and needing transportation to Paris, he finds himself treading old battlegrounds, already transformed into historic sites and tourist haunts.

The situation back in St. Helena, with Mr. Holm doubling as the deceitful Eugene, seems to have outrageous farcical potential, but the movie forecloses it by shutting down the St. Helena shop prematurely.

Napoleon's homecoming mission is trivialized by the curious nature of the produce business as formulated by screenwriter Kevin Molony and director Alan Taylor. Evidently, getting a jump on the watermelon market will guarantee prosperity from that moment on.

The material Mr. Holm has to work with as Napoleon isn't much better than the dregs of impersonation left for Eugene. Mr. Holm and his Pumpkin, the Danish actress Iben Hjejle, who played the leading lady in "High Fidelity," might be a witty match of opposites for all we know, but the screenplay remains sketchy where it ought to become generously absorbed in the comedy of domesticity.

Mr. Holm has played Napoleon before, starting with a supporting role in "Time Bandits." The new dual role does little to challenge or flatter him, but I'm sort of resigned to Napoleon as a jinxed assignment.

Shot on mostly Italian locations, "New Clothes" is a modestly scaled but pictorially attractive production. The shortcomings cling to characterization and story elaboration rather than the externals of period evocation. The conception drifts into complacent waggishness for lack of dramatic invention and momentum.

The filmmakers do realize one morbidly inspired situation, an illustration of the downside of Napoleonic envy and delusion among his countrymen. If anything, this kind of revelation seems a little too sobering for a facetious fable, but it's commendable of the movie to make room for a few impressions that should weigh heavily on the emperor's conscience.

**TITLE: "The Emperor's New Clothes"

RATING: PG (Fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity in a historical setting)

CREDITS: Directed by Alan Taylor. Screenplay by Kevin Molony, based on the novel "The Death of Napoleon," by Simon Leys. Cinematography by Alessio Gelsini Torresi, production design by Andrea Crisanti, costume design by Sergio Ballo and music by Rachel Portman.

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes


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