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In this historical hypothetical, Napoleon Bonaparte (Ian Holme) makes an ingenious escape from his exile on the island of St Helena after his loyal staff recruits a look-alike nobody called Eugene (Ian Holme) to replace him. Eugene is a buffon and gets hooked on the power trip, while the real Napoleon is desperate to return to Paris and return to power. On the way, he meets Pumpkin, a widow (Iben Hjejle) who sells melons, and despite fierce opposition from the local doctor (Tim McInnerny), she welcomes him – and changes his life. 

Review by Louise Keller:
Did Napoleon die in exile or was the truth somewhat different? In a fascinating twist of re-worked history, The Emperor’s New Clothes boldly explores identity and how it impacts on who we are. The premise, from Simon Leys award-winning novel, is a complicated one to translate to the screen, but director Alan Taylor (whose work to date has mostly been for television) brings intelligence to the project. 

Cinematic with the Italian settings substituting for 19th century Europe offering plenty of atmosphere and character, this is a splendid tale that requires concentration and appreciation of nuance and detail to fully appreciate its impact. In fact the storytelling is languid to start, but gets a full head of steam by the time it reaches its satisfying conclusion. 

At the helm is Holm (Sir Ian), and a wonderful performance it is, in the complex roles of Napoleon, Napoleon as Eugene, Eugene and Eugene as Napoleon. When we first meet Napoleon in exile, he is forthright, bombastic and confident. We embark on his journey with him, first as galley-hand on the boat paddling for his escape, then as an intruder, a worker, a lover and finally the master of his own destiny. 

The journey we take with the real Eugene is quite a different one, beginning as a humble servant, then as a fish out of water in a strange environment, and finally as a greedy, conniving, selfish boor who likes the colour of his new clothes. I especially like Iben Hjejle, who we met and loved in High Fidelity with John Cusack. Hjejle imparts the very European culture and essence that this story needs for its credibility, and she is most likeable with a sincerity that glows from the screen. Wonderful production design takes us on a magic carpet ride through time, while Rachel Portman’s distinctive score with its flute-driven phrases keeps the mood light and hints at a touch of fantasy. 

It’s interesting to reflect on the effect that power has on a man, and in some ways this is a film that offers more for reflection after the tale is over. Surrender reveals itself to have more than one meaning.

Published September 18, 2003

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CAST: Ian Holm, Iben Hjejle, Tim McInnerny, Tom Watson

DIRECTOR: Alan Taylor

SCRIPT: Kevin Moloney (from the novel by Simon Leys)

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

PRESENTATION: PRESENTATION: Dolby Digital 5.1 – English; Widescreen 1.78 : 1



DVD RELEASE: September 18, 2003

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