Dir: Alan Taylor. UK. 2001. 105 mins.
Alan Taylor's 'what if' reverie on the last days of Napoleon, The Emperor's New Clothes had its world premiere in the best possible circumstances for such a middlebrow entertainment: under the stars in Locarno's Piazza Grande. Originally titled My Napoleon, the film turns the folly of transparency, which informed the classic children's fairytale from which the new title is borrowed, on its head as Napoleon tries to reclaim his throne while penniless and unrecognisable. The film certainly boasts a sumptuous look, with many fairytale wide shots thanks to cinematographer Torres. But one can practically hear the ba-da-boom underlining the script's whimsy, which is pleasantly funny. It's all rather obviously aimed at the US and English-speaking multiplexes, with the look of Oscar campaign writ large. On European turf, however, it's hard to see the more historically literate connecting to such an outlandish interpretation of Napoleon.
Since his 1996 debut with Palookaville, Taylor has kept his directorial hand in by handling cutting-edge TV episodes for The Sopranos, Oz, Homicide, and The West Wing. Most of that edge has been used here to hone Holm's characterisation as a jowly, irascible Napoleon in rags. Holm plays both real and faux Napoleons: the former sprung from exile on St Helena (filmed on Malta) making his way to Paris incognito in the guise of a galley hand to take back the throne from the Bourbon dynasty; the latter is his double, who stays behind on the island and slips into his habits and deluxe digs courtesy of the British. This Prince And The Pauper plot turns on a miscalculation of Napoleonic proportions: never show a beggar a banquet and expect him to leave feet first.
The dialogue and situation ply a steady course between irony (Napoleon's odyssey includes a stop at a Battle Of Waterloo tourist stand) and slight farce en route to a promised land that is now governed by newly-enlightened male sympathies. Instead of world-beating, which is what old colonialist males used to do - Napoleon par example - they must now embrace a New Age sensibility in a post-feminist world. Rachel Portman's score leaves nothing to chance here, with lots of brass, occasional harpsichord and whimsical flutes underscoring the scenes' intent.
At the heart of Napoleon's reluctant conversion to post-feminism is a melon seller's widow named Pumpkin (one more detail that is a tad too massaged), played by Danish actress Hjejle. Hjejle is not a bad doorstep to land on nor bedstead to land in, which has essentially been the arc of her high-profile performances in Dogme 95's Mifune and then Stephen Frears' High Fidelity. An unlikely courtship ensues between Napoleon and Pumpkin, with McInnerny (Notting Hill) playing Pumpkin's disappointed suitor. And the business school joke at the heart of this romance proves to be the best part of the film. When it comes to unloading Pumpkin's deteriorating melon inventory, Napoleon devises the first course ever in power-point marketing, adapting geo- and demographic tools previously reserved for 19th century battlefield analysis.
Stripped bare, The Emperor's New Clothes is a nicely humoured, Baby Boomer homily on impending retirement. But this is ahead of the curve for the greying generation it wants to reach, below the radar for the rest, and otherwise by the book. In the end, it could well be that the words that backers FilmFour and Uberto Pasolini (The Full Monty), who also produced Palookaville, least want to hear might well be the epitaph that applies to Bonaparte himself: Honourable Failure.
Prod co: FilmFour presentation of a ReoWave production.
US dist: Goldwyn
Int'l sales: FilmFour
Exec prods: Paul Webster, Hanno Huth, Roberto Cicutto
Prod: Uberto Pasolini
Scr: Kevin Molony, Alan Taylor, Herbie Wave, based on the novel by Simon Leys
Cinematography: Alessio Gelsini Torresi
Prod des: Andrea Chrisanti
Music: Rachel Portman
Ed: Masahiro Hirakabu
Main cast: Ian Holm, Iben Hjejle, Tim McInnerny