Napoleon died in 1821 in comfortable exile on the island of St. Helena, right? Nope. That's the alternative history premise in the lighthearted THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES.
Ian Holm, recently seen on the big screen as Bilbo Baggins in LORD OF THE RINGS, does double duty as Bonaparte and his look-alike, Eugene Lenormand. The latter is a swab jockey pulled off a passing merchant ship and secretly substituted for Bonaparte on St. Helena while the Emperor sets sail on the same vessel for France in the guise of the common sailor (with all his attendant duties). The plan is that, after enough time is allowed Napoleon to reach Paris, Lenormand will announce himself as a fraud to his British jailers, a revelation sure to make all the supermarket tabloids. Reading of this in Paris, the Emperor will emerge from the closet, so to speak, and retake his throne with the help of widespread popular support. The plan doesn't take into account that Eugene might enjoy his new existence in captivity. As he remarks to the French conspirators, he's been scrubbing ships' decks for all the years that Napoleon was Emperor, and now it's his turn to be pampered. So, in the meantime, the real Napoleon must cool his heels in Paris while staying in the home of the widow Truchaut (Iben Hjejle), alias "Pumpkin", who manages a cadre of street-roaming melon sellers. As luck would have it, Pumpkin's husband, who was one of the very few plotters privy to Napoleon's escape plan, died shortly before the Emperor's arrival. Oh, well.
Holm is splendid in his dual role, and Hjejle is engaging as Pumpkin. However, the two together, especially Holm's Napoleon persona, never quite made this viewer believe that the pair had a future together no matter how much Pumpkin wanted it. Having said that, the film's lesson is that sometimes being content with less is a virtue that is its own reward. Bonaparte has this epiphany when, in one of the movie's best scenes, he's introduced to several other "Napoleons" by a physician friend of Pumpkin's. And Holm certainly looks the part, especially because of his relatively short stature. There's a scene, a sight gag in itself, where Bonaparte is hugged by a former member of his Imperial Guard, an old comrade-in-arms apparently over six feet tall, and the Emperor is almost smothered in the clothing at the man's waist. Also to the film's credit is the cinematography and special FX, which effectively depict early 19th century Paris.
For me, the greatest flaw in this otherwise excellent film was the logic behind the storyline. Rather than leave control of events to the imposter left behind on St. Helena, Napoleon should have revealed himself to those he knew in Paris, some of whom would have certainly been of high social importance, and then, his identity established to their satisfaction, held a joint press conference with photo ops. (Even Pumpkin's doctor realized the true identity of her lodger for reasons I shall not reveal here.) That would have left the British to prove that their captive was not the real deal, a dodgy undertaking at best. However, such an approach by the scriptwriters would certainly have resulted in a film not nearly so much fun. Come to think of it, THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES is a gem best left like it is.