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Little Corporal Punishment: Ian Holm's Napoleon plots his escape from his British captors in 'The Emperor's New Clothes.'

Holm of the Brave

The emperor strikes back in Ian Holm's new film about the secret life of Napoleon

By Richard von Busack

THE EMOTIONS stirred by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte are summed up in a ringing speech of praise by the character Marius in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. In the army of Napoleon, one followed "in a single man, Hannibal, Caesar and Charlemagne." The soldiers in his army felt that they had their hands on the hilt of the sword of God. And what, Marius asks, could be a grander destiny than to follow such a leader? "To be free," answers a listener simply--and that settles that.

The Emperor's New Clothes, a wry, dry film by Alan Taylor (Palookavaille), is a bittersweet romance about the rehabilitation of Napoleon as a man--how he's freed, first by conspirators and later by love. As the story begins, the Man of Destiny (Ian Holm) is replaced by an impersonator (Holm again) to fool his British captors on the Isle of St. Helena, as Napoleon himself takes the long way home back to France. The droll if melancholy tale has it that Napoleon is unable to stage a successful comeback. A host of irritating little things stall him: a sprained ankle, the untimely death of an underling, a jealous doctor and the general exhaustion of his people at the very thought of one more curtain call by the Little Corporal. Mostly, Napoleon's new Waterloo comes in the form of a growing love for a woman named Nicole, nicknamed "Pumpkin," a widowed greengrocer. Meanwhile, in St. Helena, Napoleon's ringer turns out to be a drunken pipsqueak who does nothing but utter locker-room boasts about Josephine.

For a little movie, The Emperor's New Clothes is visually rich. The photography by Alessio Gelsini Torresi is as enrapturing as a George de la Tour painting, and the settings (mostly the Italian film studio Cinecittà) seem lavish without stuffiness. Holm's version of the emperor--reprised from the joke version he performed in Time Bandits--is one of the most impressive ever. Holm's eyes and voice send a thrill through you from the beginning. Maybe the problem with most actors playing this tricky part is their height--few of them have a diminutive man's boiling anger in them.

If only the film were, like Napoleon, short but to the point. The Emperor's New Clothes drifts, even as its conclusion becomes more inescapable. As Pumpkin, the Danish actress Iben Hjejle is such a good woman that she's basically uninteresting, a pumpkin by nature as well as name. When her lover suddenly declares himself to be Napoleon and struts about in the familiar hat and brass buttons, she withdraws.

If the film seems a little disappointing, it's because Holm's Napoleon never gets a chance to really shine in his majesty. The Emperor's New Clothes itches that scratchy little patch of male vanity that proclaims, "I could have conquered the world, if love hadn't made me settle down." But when the film urges settling down, one feels that something's missing. How one would have loved to see Holm's Napoleon at Austerlitz.

The Emperor's New Clothes (PG; 107 min.), directed by Alan Taylor, written by Kevin Molony, Herbie Wave and Taylor, based on the novel by Simon Leys, photographed by Alessio Gelsini Torresi and starring Ian Holm and Iben Hjejle, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the June 27-July 3, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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