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The Emperor's New Clothes

(2002) ** 1/2 Pg
107 min. Paramount Classics. Director: Alan Taylor. Cast: Ian Holm, Iben Hjejle, Tim McInnerny, Tom Watson, Nigel Terry.

The Emperor's New Clothes is a star vehicle with a tricky premise. The star, Sir Ian Holm, is marvelous, and the premise isn't half bad. But neither commodity is used to its fullest potential, making this often charming historical fiction adventure feel like a halfway effort.

Holm plays two roles: deposed elder statesman Napoleon--the real deal--and commoner and Napoleon lookalike Eugene Lenormand. Napoleon's staff enlists Lenormand to pose as the exiled emperor while the real deal is spirited off the Isle of St Helena and home to Paris. When complications ensue, the real Napoleon is left out in the cold. Soon enough, he's raising suspicions in the wrong people and unable to prove his real identity to the right ones, including the worldly widow with whom he falls in love. Her unlikely name is Pumpkin, and she's well played by the young and luminous Iben Hjejle (High Fidelity).

Alan Taylor wisely gives Holm room to work his magic, while also providing the odd ingenious flourish (like Napoleon's shadow taking on an more imposing stature on a wall). Holm, gifted and reliably personable, gets to cut up a bit more than usual here as Lenormand, enough to make one wish for more screen time for the character. Holm's main act here is Napoleon, a part he's played at least twice before, once on British television and once, briefly, in Time Bandits (and very nearly in Stanley Kubrick's aborted Napoleon film of the early seventies). Here, his late-life Napoleon, though arrogant, becomes hugely sympathetic in his rediscovery of self through loss and love. Between plot-advancing scenes are touchstone moments (some of which work better than others) for Holm's Napoleon. In one, the erstwhile emperor makes unusual use of his military know-how; in another, the notion that he's a mad Napoleon impostor is taken to its extreme.

One might well ask if Napoleon is a character suited to this sort of whimsy, and one can also feel the effort of the three screenwriters (Kevin Molony, Alan Taylor, and Herbie Wave) it took to adapt the story from Simon Leys's novel The Death of Napoleon. But Taylor's film is unassuming, and Holm is utterly disarming, making this lightweight outing difficult to resist. If you're just getting to know the other Sir Ian of The Lord of the Rings films (this one played Bilbo Baggins), here's proof you can go Holm again.

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