Napoleon Bonaparte, once the mightiest ruler in the world, ended his days confined to Saint Helena, a bleak island in the south Atlantic 1,200 miles west of Africa. His compulsory residence, from 1815 to 1821, might even have been abridged by poison. It was a pitiful conclusion to a glamorous, spectacular, and violent life.

"It didn't end there at all," insists a voice at the beginning of The Emperor's New Clothes. "Let me tell you what really happened." What really happened to Napoleon is the alternative history that Simon Leys imagined. Alan Taylor adapted his winsome film from Leys' 1986 novella The Death of Napoleon. Instead of spending his final six years in desolate exile, on a diet of English cuisine, Napoleon trades places with a plebeian look-alike and slips back in to Europe. In the film, the double can easily pass for the dethroned monarch because both are played by Ian Holm. As Eugene Lenormand, he is an ass suddenly elevated to aristocracy. Assigned the part of Napoleon, who scorns the paltry creature recruited to take his place, he puts on airs that scarce disguise his flatulence. Though he dons regal apparel, the clothes make the man a fool. Juxtaposing a despot in desperate circumstances with a parvenu potentate, the opening sequence of the film is farce that soon goes flat.

However, after Napoleon, incognito and forced to toil as a menial sailor, makes the ocean voyage back to civilization, something majestic happens to the film. It becomes a version of The Prince and the Pauper, except that, aside from a few perfunctory intercuts of Eugene back on the island, we focus entirely on the Prince — haughty Napoleon humanized by communion with the common people. Passing among the masses unrecognized, he is ennobled by the contact. When, reneging on their agreement, Eugene refuses to admit he is an impostor, Napoleon is stuck being emperor of ice cream. Or at least melons — in a crucial sequence, Napoleon, wooing a widow greengrocer named Pumpkin (Hjejle), organizes an army of fruit vendors to conquer Paris with their produce. It is a brilliant campaign, worthy of the victor of Austerlitz.

Napoleon the man discovers he has become a legend. The battlefield at Waterloo has already been turned into a kind of theme park, and when, on his way back to Paris, Napoleon stays at a nearby inn, he sleeps beneath a plaque that reads: "Emperor Napoleon Slept Here." Despite his august bearing, Napoleon goes unrecognized. However, Dr. Lambert (McInnerny) sees him for what he is, a rival for the affections of Pumpkin, as well as an imperial has-been. "You're a nobody," he says. "I prefer my emperor dead." It is like the inhospitable greeting that Jesus receives from the Grand Inquisitor when he returns to earth in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. We prefer to keep our deities at a distance. And this one had left hundreds of thousands of corpses behind in his martial push across Europe.

Courtesy of jealous Dr. Lambert, Napoleon spends a harrowing evening within the confines of an insane asylum. Like the newcomer, each of the inmates proclaims: "I am Napoleon." Like King of Hearts or Man Facing Southeast, The Emperor's New Clothes teases with tenuous distinctions between madness and lucidity, between appearance and reality. Though the film is, finally, a much slighter achievement, it gathers power from the same question that haunts Calderon's Life Is a Dream and Pirandello's Henry IV: Is worldly dominion merely a delusion?

Greek mythology is filled with stories of gods who descend from Olympus and, at least temporarily, embrace the human condition. Christianity is founded on the notion of voluntary Incarnation. What (beyond luscious cinematography and a resonant score) makes The Emperor's New Clothes such an appealing fantasy is its success in dramatizing the renunciation of fantasy. Might the lofty figure of Napoleon, in love with an uncommon commoner, actually choose to abjure his power and privilege in order to live out his days as vulnerable as any mere viewer? For those of us stuck with ordinary mortality, isn't it pretty to think so?

`Ed. Note: The San Antonio opening for The Emperor's New Clothes has been moved to Aug. 30.`

"Sweet fantasy about accepting the real"
Dir. Alan Taylor; writ. Kevin Molony, Alan Taylor, & Herbie Wave, based on a novella by Simon Leys; feat. Ian Holm, Iben Hjejle, Tim McInnerny, Tom Watson, Nigel Terry (PG)

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