In his `New Clothes,' Napoleon becomes a much nicer guy

July 19, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

How apt - and lucky - that a director named Taylor has made The Emperor's New Clothes!

Alan Taylor has custom-tailored Simon Leys' short novel, The Death of Napoleon, for the big screen, minimizing its silliness and heightening its fairy-tale qualities. He's also come up with a slender, gorgeous fable about common humanity and common sense. One of its morals is not that clothes make the man, but that men make clothes. Another is, men who give up the conquest of empires can go into business and taste joy.

The movie tells how the fallen emperor's followers switch Napoleon Bonaparte with a common-seaman look-alike named Eugene. The sailor takes his place on the island prison of St. Helena, while the great man sails to France, where he plans to greet adoring throngs. Of course, the plot doesn't unfold that way. Napoleon's boat fails to stop at the expected port, and Eugene hangs on to his new position. But even then, the movie doesn't lapse into predictability. It's not about men stealing or reclaiming glory. It's about a historical giant discovering his precious, ordinary heart.

Napoleon, biding time in Paris, becomes the savior of a Bonapartist's widow by salvaging her fruit and vegetable business. Her love for him transforms him from a world-beater into that equal rarity: a truly happy man. The tension comes from wondering whether for a figure as formidable as Napoleon, happiness will suffice.

Without swerving too much from Leys' line of action, Kevin Molony, who shares script credit with Taylor and Herbie Wave, has sewn together a script that suits poet Paul Valery's epigraph to the book even better than the novel does: "What a pity to see a mind as great as Napoleon's devoted to trivial things such as empires, historic events, the thundering of cannons and of men; he believed in glory, in posterity, in Caesar; nations in turmoil and other trifles absorbed all his attention ... How could he fail to see what really mattered was something else entirely?"

Working in splendid partnership with Ian Holm, who plays both Napoleon and Eugene, Taylor and company turn the action into an engaging series of alternately grand and subtle jokes. Half of them revolve around the world's most well-known man realizing he no longer knows himself, and the other half draw parallels between his old and new positions.

Napoleon has built his identity on outsize ambition and command - and Holm, a genius of suggestion, uses his unyielding posture and bayonet-like glance to raise the spirits of any Bonapartist who happens to be nearby. Acting classes should take field trips to see how, with an inside-out contrast in attitude, Holm conveys the essential buffoonery (and swift dissipation) of Napoleon's replacement - and to see how, with a softer and more flexible stance, Holm conveys the alteration of Napoleon himself into the humane family man the world will know for the rest of his life as Eugene.

Taylor makes Leys' meditative fiction seem like natural movie material, partly because the theme of mythology overtaking the man touches on the birth of pop mythology. One of the first things Napoleon discovers on the mainland is that, just a few years after his defeat, Waterloo has become a tourist trap.

Yet there's magic to the burgeoning mass culture, too, epitomized by the antique slide machine that the widow's son treasures like the prized ViewMaster of a '50s boy - it turns legends into fabulous visual stories, including the legend of Napoleon. It's Taylor's master-stroke to frame his movie with Napoleon annotating this slide show for the child. It takes a youthful suspension of disbelief to give credence to this movie. But Taylor makes you more than willing to grant it.

To a man (and child), his ensemble nails the requisite grave whimsy: the Danish actress Iben Hjejle, who was stiff in High Fidelity, is a dream of domesticity as the green-grocer's widow. She makes practicality seem sexy. So, in a way, does Taylor. With his visual team (cinematographer Alessio Gelsini Torresi, production designer Andrea Crisanti), he's devised showpiece images and segues that are exhilarating for their graceful service of the story.

It's sometimes said that the greatest test of a chef is cooking something cheap and simple, like a piece of chicken or a hamburger. In a movie that testifies to simple pleasures, Taylor and company pass that test again and again. During Napoleon's voyage to the Continent, the ship's cook, sensing a kindred spirit, summons him on deck to see the magnificent moment before sunrise. The imagery lives up to Leys' description of the sky "caught in an interrupted surge of energy, frozen in motionless chaos. Above the smooth, translucent sea, everything was in a state of suspense, waiting for the sun." The movie is dappled in that incipient light.

Emperor's New Clothes

Starring Ian Holm and Iben Hjejle

Directed and co-written by Alan Taylor

Rated PG (brief language)

Released by: Paramount Classics

Time 107 minutes

Sun Score ***1/2

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