Some men are born great, others achieve greatness, and others have their siginifcance only partially explained in pleasant period pieces. Fresh from his supporting turn in Disney's remake of "The Count of Monte Cristo," the irrepressible Napoleon moves center stage in "The Emperor's New Clothes," a German/ Italian/British co-production that makes the vanquished commander's post-Waterloo days the subject of playful speculation. Adapted from Simon Leys' novel "The Death of Napoleon," the film submits that the "little corporal" (Ian Holm) did not die in exile on the island of St. Helena, but rather escaped to seek renewed control of France while his place in captivity was taken by an unrefined seaman named (wait for it) Eugene.
That tradeoff sets in motion an engaging parallel storyline. Spirited off the island in Eugene's shipboard stead, Napoleon finds his in cognito passage back to France a humiliating, unexpectedly prolonged trial. When he finally arrives, he likewise discovers that his re-climb of the monarchical ladder must begin a few rungs lower than he would have preferred. Until the switch can be announced and his presence made known to his former subjects, he is relegated to more mundane endeavors -- like applying his military genius to the overhaul of a fruit-vending operation. Meanwhile, Eugene (also played by Holm) is learning to enjoy his stay in an alleged prison that's nonetheless more comfortable than any environment he's known before.
What makes this section of the film work is its underlying suggestion that ambition is all. Stripped of command's every comfort, Napoleon still burns to conquer, while Eugene can fathom no greater glory than simple luxury. But this subtle contrast is soon lost. Eugene is dispensed with as a character, cutting Holm's Bonaparte loose in an increasingly shallow tale of mistaken identity that relies on the propensity of mental patients to stick their hands in their jackets and wear funny hats.
Holm's strong performance never sinks to caricature, and Danish actress Iben Hjejle ("High Fidelity") does what she can with the unconvincing role of a widow who takes a shine to the man she believes is Eugene. Their relationship, like much of the picture, demonstrates that filmmaker Alan Taylor -- a veteran of TV dramas "Six Feet Under," "The Sopranos," "Oz," "The West Wing" and "Homicide: Life on the Street" -- possesses greater skills as a director than as a writer. (He also co-authored the script.) But however ably it's rendered, romance is far less than we've been led to expect by this stage, and so is a winking bit of dialogue that (unless I, too, am crazy) appears to refer to Monty Python's "dead parrot" sketch. It sure isn't Machiavelli.