“This man is not what he seems. I’m telling you this as a friend. As a friend, that is all I can tell you.”
This is one of those “what if” historical films that works only moderately well. The premise here is that Napoleon didn’t die in exile on the island of St. Helena. Instead, with the aid of his retainers, he swaps places with a look-alike commoner named Eugene Lenormand and travels to Paris with the intention of retaking the crown. The idea is that when Napoleon is ready, the real Lenormand will reveal the deception and the resulting uproar will feed popular support for Napoleon’s re-assumption of power. Lenormand, however, finds the pampered, glamorous life of pretending to be Napoleon, even if it does mean a life of house-arrest on St. Helena, to be too much to his liking to admit the deception and then proceeds to die before he can be convinced to do so. As a consequence, the real Napoleon must adapt to the life of a commoner in Paris. In this, he is aided by a young widow named Pumpkin and her son, and indirectly by the widow’s former suitor, Dr. Lambert.
The strongest aspect of the film is Ian Holm’s dual performance of Napoleon and Lenormand. Holm has played Napoleon before (in Time Bandits  and the British television miniseries Napoleon and Love ) when he was better suited to the role in terms of his age. Now at 70, he seems somewhat old for the vigorous Napoleon, but nevertheless manages to be convincing particularly in the latter part of the film when he dresses up in the familiar Napoleon costume in hopes of convincing people that he is the real thing. He does not impart the feeling of ruthlessness that is normally attributed to Napoleon, but that may be appropriate given the script’s premise.
The script, based on a novel by Simon Leys entitled “The Death of Napoleon,” along with director Alan Taylor’s interpretation of it, constitute the film’s main weakness. The film never seems able to make up its mind about what type of finished product it is meant to be. Some of the early sequences involving Napoleon’s efforts to get to Paris are quite serious and almost suggest some sort of historical action film, but suddenly Napoleon is in Paris and the whole mood becomes increasingly lighter, almost whimsical. Napoleon seems able to become a successful fruit merchant on the basis of one load of watermelons and then the tiresome May-December romantic angle is trotted out as Napoleon finds himself in Pumpkin’s bed. (Pumpkin is engagingly played by Danish actress Iben Hjejle [High Fidelity, 2000].) Finally, the film becomes darker again as Dr. Lambert reappears to show Napoleon why openly claiming to be the real Napoleon is no longer a good idea.
Paramount’s DVD release contains its usual anamorphic, widescreen transfer. Daylight scenes are quite crisp and bright, but night-time sequences show noticeable video noise at times and shadow detail is lacking. There are some minor edge effects evident. Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 surround sound tracks are provided. They are adequate for the task, but demonstrate minimal use of the surrounds. The 5.1 track has a little more punch overall, as one might expect. There are no supplemental materials whatsoever.
The Emperor’s New Clothes has an interesting premise and a fine title performance, but can’t decide whether it wants to be a comedy or a serious piece, ultimately failing to satisfy. Paramount obviously wasn’t overly impressed either. I would suggest a rental for this one at best.