The Emperor's New Clothes

on June 14, 2002 by Chris Wiegand
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   NYU filmschool graduate Alan Taylor's second feature comes six years after his hugely enjoyable debut, the comical crime caper “Palookaville.” The years in between have seen him working on “The Sopranos” and “Homicide,” so this historical fable--based on Simon Leys' “The Death Of Napoleon”--is something of a departure.

   The film's plot plays like a 19th-century take on “Trading Places” or “Taking Care Of Business,” as the Imperial Eagle himself, Napoleon Bonaparte (Ian Holm), exits the debacle of Waterloo, heads to the island of St. Helena and then does a runner, leaving behind a lookalike, Eugene Lenormand (also played by Holm), in his place. The ensuing saga, in which these characters' fates are intertwined, is one of rags-to-riches and vice versa, as Napoleon bides his time in the shadows, anxiously waiting for the day he will return to the throne, and Lenormand bathes in the luxury of a lifestyle he could only have dreamed about previously.

   This amusing alternative history lesson denies the Emperor's 1821 death and sees him shacking up in Paris, incognito, with the beautiful widow Pumpkin (Hjelje) and managing to reorganize the melon vending community. His success with Pumpkin--and with the melons--angers the spurned local doctor Lambert (British character actor Tim McInnerny), who launches an investigation into the mysterious newcomer's past.

   Parker's playful second feature, produced like his first by Uberto Pasolini, is filmed with both flair and invention, and is executed to perfection--not unlike one of the diminutive Emperor's missions. Filmed on location in Malta and Italy, as well as at the legendary Cinecitta studios, it is well shot by Italian dp Alession Gelsini Torresi and benefits from Andrea Crisanti's strong production design.

   Predominantly light-hearted throughout, with some nice set pieces, the film has a majestic score from award-winning composer Rachel Portman, which often gives it a surprisingly somber tone. It remains, like “Palookaville,” a minor, offbeat achievement, yet particularly impresses with its strong central performances from a masterly Holm and a sensitive Hjelje.    Starring Ian Holm, Iben Hjelje, Tim McInnerny and Tom Watson. Directed by Alan Taylor. Written by Kevin Molony, Alan Taylor and Herbie Wave. Produced by Uberto Pasolini. A Paramount Classics release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 106 min. Opens 7/26.

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