Emperor’s New Clothes

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Movie Review by Susan Hodgetts

Starring: Ian Holm, Iben Hjejle, Tim McInnerny, Tom Watson, Nigel Terry, Hugh Bonneville
Director: Alan Taylor

No, not the kids’ fable of the same name unfortunately, I fear I may have enjoyed that more, but a fable about Napoleon and a fictional plot woven around what could have happened during his exile.

The first, strangely, in a wave of Napoleon films Ian Holm stars as the proud, upstanding, and slightly hacked off emperor who is desperate to return to France and rule his people again. Exiled by the British to the island of St Helena, his inner circle discover a doppelganger, a French galley hand by the name of Eugene Lenormand, and persuade him to impersonate Napoleon whilst they smuggle the real master out on Eugene’s ship in his place. The plan is that when Napoleon has safely arrived in Paris, Eugene will reveal himself as an impostor, thus making it known that the Great Napoleon has escaped and is about to ascend the throne. But of course nothing goes to plan and Napoleon has to learn to come to grips with a new reality.

Holm is quite simply magnificent in the title role and a pleasure to watch as he stomps around as both the grumpy Napoleon and the gluttonous Eugene, switching between the two personas with admirable grace, ease and ingenuity. However it’s a shame that the plot lets him down like a sunken souffle and is never quite believable. In places it’s ridiculous (the high point of which, it must be said, is when Napoleon rouses a troop of melon sellers). Some of it is supposed to be funny but it can’t help falling a bit flat – not due to Holm’s performance but down to a weakness in the plot. There are, however, some enjoyable putdowns.

As for which market this was aimed at is anyone’s guess, I’m not convinced the filmmakers knew either and so perhaps they concluded to appeal to all of it, with the result that it lacks focus. It’s also terribly confusing when all of the Frenchman have perfect English accents and until they eventually introduce themselves you have no idea whether they’re English or French, making it hard to follow for parts of the first half of the film; and a uniform doesn’t always give it away. The history isn’t explained either so if you don’t know much about Napoleon then hard luck – the film rather assumes that you know all the facts – but when you’re going to weave a fictional tale against historical fact, you do need those facts as a context.

3 out of 6 stars