I first saw Alan Taylor’s The Emperor’s New Clothes (2002) at the end of a monumentally awful weekend (awful in ways that had nothing to do with movies). I almost didn’t see it, in fact. I just managed to make it to the last show on Sunday night. It proved to be…well, not the cure my ills, but two splendid hours of diversion of much charm. In fact, the experience had been so pleasant that — although I purchased the DVD of the movie — I never watched the movie again. I was afraid not only of having overrated it, but of being disappointed. It was 12 years till the Hendersonville Film Society opted to run the movie — and made me finally take it down from the shelf. Had I overrated it? Maybe a little, but not enough to make me recant anything. Better still, I was not disappointed.
Sure, it’s not much more than a souffle of a movie, but what a grand, graceful, gorgeous souffle it is. It’s a classic historical romp of the sort that briefly flourished in the early 1930s with movies like The Affairs of Cellini and Madame DuBarry and has occasionally been visited since, mostly in British films from the 1960s and ’70s — but these later incarnations usually had a harsher edge, were more epic in scope, and tended to be serious in their revisionism. The Emperor’s New Clothes differs in that it has no real agenda — just an amusing, albeit sweet, conceit built around the strong central performances of Ian Holm (he plays two characters), who has twice before played Napoleon (most notably in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits). Even though surrounded by a perfect cast, Holm gives the film its weight and its center. Unfortunately, while viewed as a solid all-around character actor, Holm is probably not enough of a box-office name to get people into the theaters, especially for a period film. And that’s a great pity, since this little film is nothing short of a delight.
The story is built on the simple idea that the exiled Napoleon traded places with a lookalike commoner, Eugene Lenormand (despite the fact that the Emperor sees no resemblance and thinks the name Eugene is effeminate), and makes his way back to Paris. The idea is that, once there, the real Lenormand will reveal himself and Napoleon can announce his return to France and rally the people to him. Unfortunately, Lenormand finds he likes the easy life, the respect, and the power of his life as Napoleon on St. Helena, gorging himself with rich food, having his portrait painted, and dictating “his” memoirs. When pressed to reveal himself, he merely says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” and proceeds to have his nemesis slapped into the loony bin.
Napoleon, on the other hand, finds himself in the home of a fruit seller who goes by the nickname “Pumpkin” (Iben Hjejle, High Fidelity). To while away the time until he can reclaim the throne, he revamps her failing business along the lines of a military campaign and turns it into a success — not to mention becoming romantically entangled with her. Meanwhile, Lenormand dies as the result of his overindulgence in his newly acquired lifestyle, and it quickly transpires that it’s in no one’s best interest to reveal the truth (“What we have here is a dead emperor”). Napoleon’s problem — as he views it — then becomes how to make anyone believe the truth of who he is.
All of this could have been played for broad comedy, but director Alan Taylor opts for a sweetly subtle tone so that the film becomes an amusing, slightly sad story about the nature of identity. Strangely, for such a slight film, The Emperor’s New Clothes has a good deal of emotional resonance as concerns self-realization — much of it summed up in a simple moment where Napoleon tells a boy that the young fellow is putting the lens in a magic lantern the wrong way: “You’ve got it backwards. Try turning it the other way around” (so too does the Emperor, about his fate). It may not be history — but then again, what if it is? — but it makes for one of the most purely enjoyable and satisfying evenings at the movies I’ve had in a while. In addition to the delights of the script and the performances, The Emperor’s New Clothes is stunning to look at. The images are rich and beautiful, and director Taylor never runs out of engaging, effective angles and camera movements.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Emperor’s New Clothes Sunday, June 15, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.