The Emperor’s New Clothes is a modest, historical “what if?” movie.It’s 1821 and Napoleon Bonaparte (Ian Holm), former Emperor of France, is enduring a sixth year of British imprisonment on Mount Helena. His supporters arrange for a poor galley-hand with a striking resemblance to the Emperor, Eugene Lenormand (Ian Holm), to take his place. Bonaparte is successfully smuggled off the island and makes his way to Paris to resume power. But when he’s delayed en route, events take an unexpected turn...
The screenplay, by Kevin Molony, Herbie Wave and director Alan Taylor, is based on a novel (by Simon Leys). But the characters are so thinly sketched that The Emperor’s New Clothes feels more like a short story stretched to fill 100 minutes. There’s potential for fun in Holm’s stuttering commoner lording it up in Bonaparte’s place, but we don’t get nearly enough of him. The role is underdeveloped and the cowering Lenormand’s sudden defiance of Bonaparte’s cronies comes out of nowhere.
With the impostor left on the sidelines, we’re treated to far too much of the other, deadly serious Bonaparte. Over the film, his imperiousness softens and he learns humility by taking up a simple life amongst the Parisian common folk. Holm easily captures Bonaparte’s gruff willfulness, but doesn’t convey the charisma he must have needed to command his armies. This petty tyrant is simply too petty.
All those pure-hearted peasants going about their chores were enough to put me to sleep. Worse still, Bonaparte starts living with one of them - a melon-selling widow who goes by the unlikely name of Pumpkin. Iben Hjejle (High Fidelity) is firm but fair, a period dress version of all those farm widows Sally Field used to play. Bonaparte’s new life as a nobody with Pumpkin and her young son (Tom Watson) is supposed to enrich him. Shame nobody told Ian Holm, whose resigned expression suggests he was having a better time in exile.
We catch a glimpse of the spirited historical romp The Emperor’s New Clothes might have been when Bonaparte takes it on himself to reorganise the melon-sellers’ run with ruthless military efficiency. But Taylor mostly misses the humorous possibilities of a story centred on role reversal and a subversion of the natural order. He seems content to settle for a limp love story. And in case you were curious, the Hollywood romantic age disparity is alive and well in nineteenth century Paris (Holm is 40 years Hjelje’s senior).As in the fairytale, look hard enough at The Emperor’s New Clothes and you’ll discover there isn’t much to see.