Trading Places

Exile learns to appreciate the commoner's life.

THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES

directed by Alan Taylor

with Ian Holm and Iben Hjejle opens June 28 at Varsity

Ian Holm is not a tall man. He's not even average, really. He's the size of a hobbit, and his stature gives him a special kind of unwavering anxiety—the nervous energy of a smallish guy who's afraid of being ignored. You might even say he has a Napoleon complex.

Just watch him in 1994's The Madness of King George: He's a vision of puritanism gone amok, marching into George III's chamber and shouting orders, reducing the king to a puddle of goo. In The Sweet Hereafter (1997), he interrogates bereaved parents following a tragic school bus accident as if they were part of a tall- people conspiracy. Holm's talent is for revealing the fear within every rabid dog—he knows the pitfalls of being short, scrappy, and in charge. He's a runt, but he can bark like hell.

It's strange, then, that in his prior three-decade career portraying diminutive, flinty-eyed characters, Holm played Napoleon only once. Back in 1981, he made a funny Napoleonic cameo in Terry Gilliam's attention-deficit Time Bandits, jibing about the joys of standing less than 5 foot 6. Now, 21 years later, Holm's Napoleon gets the full-length movie he deserves.

The Emperor's New Clothes is brainy, cunning mischief—not so far-fetched as Bandits, but hardly a musty historical drama—about Napoleon's last-ditch efforts to escape exile on St. Helena. Stuck on a rock in the middle of the South Atlantic, the feisty megalomaniac conspires to flee, leaving behind a look-alike peasant (also Holm) in his place. All goes well until the peasant grows accustomed to his posh new imperial status, preventing the genuine Napoleon from revealing his identity and reclaiming power back in France. This trifle of a story wouldn't be complete without a little romantic frosting: here a Paris widow (Danish beauty Iben Hjejle of High Fidelity, half Holm's age), who gradually warms to her strange, brooding lodger.

Throughout, director Alan Taylor (Palookaville) shows an easygoing, sardonic touch recalling the genteel black comedy of King George. However, he could stand to modulate the music (Rachel Portman's square score sounds like James Horner without the choirboys), and he's burdened by an erratic script that occasionally sinks to Portman's level (and lower). But when the movie works (and it works often), Clothes is smart entertainment—a tongue-in-cheek paean to an imposing, impossible, Bilbo-sized emperor.

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