The Emperor's New Clothes

A fun and fanciful comic adventure, based on the novel The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys, that takes a great premise and runs with it. What if Napoleon Bonaparte didn't really die in exile, and one of the first people ever to suffer from a Napoleon complex was actually the deposed emperor of France? The year is 1821, and for the past six years, Napoleon...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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A fun and fanciful comic adventure, based on the novel The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys, that takes a great premise and runs with it. What if Napoleon Bonaparte didn't really die in exile, and one of the first people ever to suffer from a Napoleon complex was actually the deposed emperor of France? The year is 1821, and for the past six years, Napoleon Bonaparte (Ian Holm) — the man who once held most of Europe in his hands — has been living in comfortable exile on the tiny island of St. Helena. He's been held there, a virtual prisoner, ever since his defeat at Waterloo, but he won't be there much longer — the little emperor has big plans. His loyal retinue has arranged for their beloved leader to be switched with a lookalike — a drunken, uncouth deckhand named Eugene (whom Holm plays with hilarious relish) — while Napoleon takes his place aboard ship. Once the emperor reaches Paris, the impostor of St. Helena will reveal himself, the Bourbon king will be deposed and France will once again belong to Napoleon. The switch goes off without a hitch: Eugene is installed without raising the suspicions of the English guards, and the once-invincible emperor is soon swabbing decks. But the boat is headed to Belgium, not France; by the time Napoleon reaches Paris, his contact, a sergeant with the Old Guard, has died. While waiting for Eugene to reveal the fraud, Napoleon cozies up to the soldier's widow, Pumpkin (Iben Hjejle), and arouses the jealous suspicions of an amorous local doctor (Tim McInnerny) who's more than a little wary of the stranger. Meanwhile back on St. Helena, Eugene is living like a king and in no hurry to reveal anything to anybody. Instead, he busies himself writing Napoleon's memoirs and drinking his brandy. As the emperor falls in love with Pumpkin, history continues to conspire against his glorious return; when he finally decides to announce his imperial presence, he's dismissed as a raving lunatic. It's not every day an actor gets to play an emperor and a drunken lout in the same movie, and Holm makes the most of it, adding a delicate touch of poignancy to what might otherwise have been a weightless romp. The only serious misstep here is Rachel Portman's incessant, overbearing score: It's all Holm and his talented supporting cast can do to be heard over it.

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  • Released: 2002
  • Rating: PG
  • Review: A fun and fanciful comic adventure, based on the novel The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys, that takes a great premise and runs with it. What if Napoleon Bonaparte didn't really die in exile, and one of the first people ever to suffer from a Napoleon compl… (more)

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