The Emperor’s New Clothes

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

5 May

Napoleon dies, 1821

On this day in 1821, Napoléon Bonaparte died, on the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic. He had been taken there by the British after defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, which had been made necessary by Napoléon’s escape from his previous exile on the isle of Elba.

Elba was in the Mediterranean, but with Helena no one was taking any chances. The man who had conquered most of western Europe and invaded Russia was sequestered on one of the remotest places in the world – 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) from the nearest major landmass, a volcanic outcrop with a mildly tropical climate in the South Atlantic. There he dictated his memoirs, criticised his jailors and entertained conspirators from other countries who wanted him to lead revolutions there. One set of schemers wanted him to help free South America from colonial rule (very ironic). Another involved a Texan plan to spring Napoléon from prison after which he would preside over the restoration of his empire in the USA.

Neither plan got very far because of Napoléon’s death which was possibly exacerbated by his confinement in damp lodgings. The cause of death was initially said to be stomach cancer, though a theory developed in the 1960s suggested he had been poisoned with arsenic. The fact that Napoléon’s body was remarkably well preserved when it was disinterred in 1840 and returned to France seemed to support this theory, arsenic being a fine preservative. Though this theory too has subsequently been called into question – high levels of arsenic in the body was common back then – and now death by gastric or peptic ulcer seems to be the most favoured candidate.

The Emperor’s New Clothes (2001, dir: Alan Taylor)

Whimsy can be a deadly thing in a film. It’s all over this what-if version of the latter years of Napoleon Bonaparte, which imagines that a lookalike Bonaparte is smuggled onto St Helena, allowing the real emperor to travel back to France, where he expects the populace to spontaneously rise up against the new regime and then reinstall him as their leader once news has got out that the emperor has magically disappeared from his confinement.

Things do not go according to plan, and while low-born Eugene Lenormand back on St Helena is enjoying his new lifestyle and the advantages of imperial rank, in Paris the deposed emperor is left lodging with the widow of a melon seller, a man who died pour la patrie in one of Napoléon’s campaigns. The crux comes when the Bonaparte back on St Helena refuses to reveal himself as a fake – he’s having too much fun – forcing the real Bonaparte in Paris to go it alone. Here’s the thing: no one believes he’s the real deal; Paris is full of lunatics proclaiming they are Napoléon. Also domesticity is beckoning, in the shape of the comely widow (Iben Hjejle), who doesn’t believe the man is who he says he is either. But if he wants to be “my Napoléon” then she’s prepared to indulge him.

What saves all this from descending into a Carry On or Bill & Ted bit of knockabout is the performance of Ian Holm, who not only makes an opportunistic Eugene Lenormand but is a very creditable but increasingly frayed former Emperor discovering that being one of the followers isn’t his sort of thing at all. Now, imagine that as a pitch – two emperors, one the real deal, the other etc etc – and it’s undeniable that we’re in the world of deep, epic whimsy. But a little whimsy isn’t a bad thing, and Holm and the incredibly likeable Hjejle (who, around the time of High Fidelity, seemed destined for a higher profile) spin gold from this gentle comedy and tentative romance trading in an unusual filmic proposition – that not only can the epic be trumped by the mundane, but it should be.

Why Watch?

  • Ian Holm, not as Bilbo
  • The solid British supporting cast includes Hugh Bonneville and Tim McInnerny
  • Holm’s third outing as Napoléon
  • An unusual hero-to-zero character arc

The Emperor’s New Clothes – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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