The Emperor's New Clothes (2001)
|Ian Holm||Napoleon / Eugene|
|Tim McInnerny||Dr. Lambert|
This is a fable of how an exiled emperor escaped his lonely island in an attempt to win back his kingdom and found happiness as a fruit merchant instead. The Emperor's New Clothes is based on the novel The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys.
It is 1820, or thereabouts, and Napoleon is in exile on St. Helena. Despite those pesky English soldiers eavesdropping on him, he and his entourage have made a plan for his escape. They have located a double, one Eugene Lenormand, Able Seaman. Bonaparte and Lenormand swap places and Bonaparte works his way across the Atlantic on a merchantman.
The merchantman was supposed to put in at Brest where Bonaparte's contact could be identified by the pass phrase "The eagle flies from belfry to belfry." Unfortunately, the ship put in at Antwerp instead, because the prices were better, so the Emperor has to get to Paris on his own.
Napoleon's goal in Paris is the home of Lieutenant Truchaut. When he arrives, he is mistaken for the undertaker as Truchaut is recently deceased. The Emperor doesn't know where to go from here but surmises there are probably other conspirators among Truchaut's acquaintanceship and decides to stay, as Eugene Lenormand. Mrs. Truchaut, Pumpkin, not knowing his true identity or about Truchaut's involvement with the conspiracy, allows him to remain as she is accustomed to taking in strays, though she is in a very bad way. Her business is failing because the heat wave is causing the fruit her men peddle to rot before it can be sold.
Bonaparte saves the day by devising a plan of attack whereby the melons are hawked in areas that are heavily trafficked but not covered by other merchants and to take advantage of the thirst engendered by the heat wave. There are some amusing scenes of elaborate push cart drills as the peddlers put the plan into action. Pumpkin is saved and can buy back her furniture.
Meanwhile, Eugene Lenormand revels in being Emperor even if in exile. When the time comes to reveal himself as a fraud he declines. Napoleon can't disclose himself until everyone knows the Bonaparte on St. Helena is a phony. Finally, Eugene dies. The Frenchmen on St. Helena tell a British Captain, the chief jailer as it were, about the substitution. He figures he can let dead Napoleons lie and go home or tell the truth and be ruined. He opts for the former.
The genuine Bonaparte can't let go of his dream of regaining his country even in the face of France believing him dead and reading his posthumous memoirs.
According to IMDb, Iben Hjele was born in 1971. This would make her roughly 30 during principal photography. Pumpkin was married to Truchaut for twenty years. I don't think they married at ten, even back then. She just looked too young to me, particularly as the harder life aged people more (Thus, I'm not complaining about the seventy year old Holm playing the fifty year old Bonaparte.) She did not show me why she would fall for Eugene other than cream pot love.
When Napoleon finally relinquished his dream, it wasn't clear to me whether it was because he finally realized how good he had it or just acknowledged it was a forlorn hope. He wasn't very lovable. Pumpkin complains about the parts of her husband's life he didn't share with her, yet, even putting aside that whole Emperor thing, Napoleon doesn't seem any more open.
Dr. Lambert was a friend of Truchaut and is hoping to marry his widow, after a suitable mourning period, of course. He is also a Bonapartist and begins to suspect "Eugene" is the Emperor. He is torn, as he sees Pumpkin fall for Napoleon, between jealousy and loyalty. Tim McInnerny puts it all on screen.
While not a farce, The Emperor's New Clothes is very droll at times. For instance, on the trip from Antwerp to Paris there is a stop at Waterloo, a tourist trap five years after the big battle. While 90%, or more, of the characters are French, there are no French accents in evidence. This actually makes sense, I think. Do the French have "French" accents when they are speaking French? After the faux emperor dies the film loses momentum and turns darker but still interesting. The film successfully realizes the high concept, bringing the era, with some minor quibbles, and Napoleon, to life.