Ian Holm as Napoléon Bonaparte

The Emperor’s New Clothes


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



5 May


Napoleon dies, 1821

On this day in 1821, Napoléon Bonaparte died, on the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic. He had been taken there by the British after defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, which had been made necessary by Napoléon’s escape from his previous exile on the isle of Elba. Elba was in the Mediterranean, but with Helena no one was taking any chances. The man who had conquered most of western Europe and invaded Russia was sequestered on one of the remotest places in the world – 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) from the nearest major landmass, a volcanic outcrop with a mildly tropical climate in the South Atlantic. There he dictated his memoirs, criticised his jailors and entertained conspirators from other countries who wanted him to lead revolutions there. One set of schemers wanted him to help free South America from colonial rule (very ironic). Another involved a Texan plan to spring Napoléon from prison after which he would preside over the restoration of his empire in the USA. Neither plan got very far because of Napoléon’s death which was possibly exacerbated by his confinement in damp lodgings. The cause of death was initially said to be stomach cancer, though a theory developed in the 1960s suggested he had been poisoned with arsenic. The fact that Napoléon’s body was remarkably well preserved when it was disinterred in 1840 and returned to France seemed to support this theory, arsenic being a fine preservative. Though this theory too has subsequently been called into question – high levels of arsenic in the body was common back then – and now death by gastric or peptic ulcer seems to be the most favoured candidate.




The Emperor’s New Clothes (2001, dir: Alan Taylor)

Whimsy can be a deadly thing in a film. It’s all over this what-if version of the latter years of Napoleon Bonaparte, which imagines that a lookalike Bonaparte is smuggled onto St Helena, allowing the real emperor to travel back to France, where he expects the populace to spontaneously rise up against the new regime and then reinstall him as their leader once news has got out that the emperor has magically disappeared from his confinement. Things do not go according to plan, and while low-born Eugene Lenormand back on St Helena is enjoying his new lifestyle and the advantages of imperial rank, in Paris the deposed emperor is left lodging with the widow of a melon seller, a man who died pour la patrie in one of Napoléon’s campaigns. The crux comes when the Bonaparte back on St Helena refuses to reveal himself as a fake – he’s having too much fun – forcing the real Bonaparte in Paris to go it alone. Here’s the thing: no one believes he’s the real deal; Paris is full of lunatics proclaiming they are Napoléon. Also domesticity is beckoning, in the shape of the comely widow (Iben Hjejle), who doesn’t believe the man is who he says he is either. But if he wants to be “my Napoléon” then she’s prepared to indulge him. What saves all this from descending into a Carry On or Bill & Ted bit of knockabout is the performance of Ian Holm, who not only makes an opportunistic Eugene Lenormand but is a very creditable but increasingly frayed former Emperor discovering that being one of the followers isn’t his sort of thing at all. Now, imagine that as a pitch – two emperors, one the real deal, the other etc etc – and it’s undeniable that we’re in the world of deep, epic whimsy. But a little whimsy isn’t a bad thing, and Holm and the incredibly likeable Hjejle (who, around the time of High Fidelity, seemed destined for a higher profile) spin gold from this gentle comedy and tentative romance trading in an unusual filmic proposition – that not only can the epic be trumped by the mundane, but it should be.



Why Watch?


  • Ian Holm, not as Bilbo
  • The solid British supporting cast includes Hugh Bonneville and Tim McInnerny
  • Holm’s third outing as Napoléon
  • An unusual hero-to-zero character arc


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Emperor’s New Clothes – at Amazon





4 thoughts on “The Emperor’s New Clothes”

  1. In 1821, on St. Helena, Napoleon loyalists switch the emperor with a look-alike ship hand and send the little tyrant secretly off to Paris to revive the Old Order. I love improbable movies like `The Emperor’s New Clothes,’ especially the docudramas that feed our lust to know the insides of great figures.

    You may not know Ian Holm’s Napoleon that well because Holm concentrates more on the mannerisms than the script. Yet the best lines are good, such as when the emperor, disguised as a seaman, boards a ship and says, "A position above decks would have been more appropriate.’ Or when his love interest, Pumpkin, responds after he tells her his true identity: "You’re not Napoleon! I hate Napoleon! He has filled France with widows and orphans! He took my husband. I won’t let him take you." There are truths there to make a revolution.

    Our hero tries his hand at selling melons, marshalling his crew with his great leadership rhetoric, and wins the love of Pumpkin, her son, and himself after 6 years of humiliating, loveless exile.

    When the film opens with the young son showing colored slides of the emperor’s life on a primitive projector, you can feel the romance and the warmth for the rest of the film. When you wake with Napoleon on ship to see a stunning sunrise, you know Alessio Gelsini Torresi is a cinematographer worth watching.

    This sweet film, softly extolling the grandeur of simple love, takes it final cue from Candide, where that weary traveler laid his weary heart in his garden. This Napoleon had said, "I place my trust in only two things: my will and the love of the people of France." He finds now a redemptive will to survive and, without egotism or violence, a love of one person to satisfy an empire.

    This is good old-fashioned romance, history, and fiction all in one small but unforgettable film, a bit like the subject himself.

  2. This is a carefully crafted, beautifully acted "what if" story about Napoleon Bonaparte. It is literate, inventive, and has a beautiful music score to boot. The female lead, Iben Hjejle, is a revelation! I wish she would make more films outside of Denmark.

    The story centers around Napoleon’s exile after Waterloo, and a plot to have him escape (using a double), return to France to raise an army and regain his throne. But something unforeseen happens along the way, when his double, back on St. Helena, decides he is enjoying being Emperor Napoleon too much to give it up. That leaves the real Emperor Napoleon, secretly back in Paris, with a problem: nobody believes he is who he says he is…

    Let’s not reveal any more of the plot in this outstanding film (provided you can enjoy a movie with no nudity and cursing, and virtually no violence).

  3. I watched the first screening of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ at the London Film Festival. The film seemed to disappear from the public eye after that, even though I personally thought that it was a good film.

    In summary, this film is about Napoleon who wants to get his lost power back, and he pretends he is a peasant in order to eventually rise up and seize it. During this time, he meets a woman he falls in love with. The film explores how his life evolves over the longing of love and power, and there is the realization that he cannot achieve both.

    This film is moving and witty. One of the most memorable scenes was when Napoleon tries to convince others that he is Napoleon, but he is not believed, and they take him to an asylum where there are many others there that believe that they are Napoleon.

    I was surprised that this film did not get respected; it is a forgotten gem.

  4. "The Emporer’s New Clothes" is a revisionist historical romantic comedy which tells of Napoleon Bonaparte’s escape from exile on St. Helena and return to France to reclaim his throne. Traveling incognito, Bonaparte (Holm) hooks up with a comely widow Pumpkin (Hjejle) who takes some of the starch out of the "Little Corporal’s" skivvies while setting his crusty old heart aglow. A charming period piece with exotic locations, this film pairs a tour de force by Holm with an all too rare performance by versatile beauty (Hjejle) in a happy mix of drama, subtle comedy, and light hearted romance. (B)

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