Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ian Holm, Iben Hjejle, Tim McInnerny, Tom Watson, Nigel Terry, Hugh Bonneville, Murray Melvin, Eddie Marsan, Clive Russell, Bob Mason, Trevor Cooper, Chris Langham, Russell Dixon, George Harris, Niall O'Brien
Written by: Kevin Molony, Alan Taylor, Herbie Wave, based on a novel by Simon Leys
Directed by: Alan Taylor
MPAA Rating: PG for brief language
Running Time: 107
Date: 03/18/2013

The Emperor's New Clothes (2002)

2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In The Emperor's New Clothes, Ian Holm plays two Napoleons -- the real one and a fake one. The film's funniest joke even refers to the classic image of a crazy person dressed up as Napoleon, with a hand jammed between the buttons of his vest, and that big, goofy sideways hat. The joke goes one further if you remember that Holm played Napoleon twice before, briefly in Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981) and in the 1974 TV miniseries "Napoleon and Love."

In this new film, Holm is absolutely brilliant in the role. He reveals the stubbornness that comes from a lifetime of having grown used to power, as well as the desperation and sorrow that follow when the power no longer counts. But that's as far as The Emperor's New Clothes cares to go. It cooks up an intriguing fictional scenario -- based on Simon Leys' novel -- that Napoleon actually escapes Waterloo, leaving a double behind in his place. The real Napoleon travels to Paris and lives under as assumed name while waiting to take power again. Meanwhile, the double refuses to admit he's a fake, and dies with the world believing that he's the real Napoleon.

Directed by Alan Taylor (who also directed epsiodes of "The West Wing," "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City"), the film flops between comedy, romance and epic. But it's too self-important and plodding to be funny, and too clipped and abbreviated to be an epic. The romance angle barely succeeds. The object of Napoleon's affection, a melon farmer named Pumpkin (Iben Hjejle), is so sketchily drawn that we don't care about her one way or the other. Every time we see her, she's dutifully tending to somebody's wound or cooking something in the kitchen. If she's interesting at all, it's thanks to the lovely and charismatic actress Hjejle, who brought her roles in High Fidelity and Mifune to life.

The film establishes a half-baked romantic triangle for Napoleon and Pumpkin. Coming off of her husband's recent death, Pumpkin has attracted the unwanted attention of Dr. Lambert (Tim McInnerny), who has helped her settle her husband's affairs. Of course, Lambert comes across as such a selfish ninny that we can't possibly root for him. The movie gets even sillier when Napoleon establishes a military-like plan for distributing Pumpkin's unsold melons for maximum income. He calls the townspeople together for a meeting, barks instructions at them and points at some maps. A melon-selling-and-eating montage follows. It ends with some lame attempts at humor when people slip and fall on the discarded rinds.

Taylor directs individual scenes for speed and economy -- much like TV -- but fails to find a breath of life or tone or rhythm in any of them. In the end, they don't add up to a story. Then there are the logical inconsistencies that spring up, such as the fact that Dr. Lambert knows about a scar on Napoleon's foot that seems to be public knowledge -- though no one ever uses this scar to identify the real Napoleon. When the movie finally gets to its ultimate Napoloen-as-crazy-person joke, it's has already gone on about an hour too long.

The Emperor's New Clothes shouldn't be dismissed because of Holm's brilliant turn. Still, it seems as though the movie were made simply to indulge a whim to see him in the role -- a whim conceived without a script or even an idea.

(This review originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.)

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