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Who’s the boss: Holm in The Emperor’s New Clothes.

We Two Kings
By Ann Morrow

The Emperor’s New Clothes
Directed by Alan Taylor

The Emperor’s New Clothes is a “What if?” movie, as in: “What if Emperor Napoleon did not die in exile on St. Helena, but escaped and lived many years longer?” And the answer, according to this clever, witty, and movingly rueful film, is he’d have had a lot of adjusting to do. For one thing, he wouldn’t have been able to boss around the populace of Europe. And he’d have had to lose that preposterous hat.

Adapted with verve from a novel by Simon Leys, the film meets up with Napoleon (Ian Holm) six years into his imprisonment. Bored and humiliated, the deposed monarch goes along with the audacious scheme of his loyal retinue: To swap the emperor with a lookalike deckhand from the supply ship, who will pose as Napoleon while the real emperor sails to Paris, where, according to his hilariously out-of-touch aide-de-camp (Hugh Bonneville), “the people of France” will restore him to the throne. Napoleon isn’t too thrilled with his imposter, an uncouth swabbie named Eugene (also played by Holm). And once onboard the merchant ship, the brilliant military strategist is royally put out when things don’t go according to plan, starting with a change in itinerary that deposits him in Belgium.

For Eugene, kingly imprisonment on St. Helena is hog heaven, especially the truffles and claret. The film doesn’t waste time on the mechanics of training the deckhand to act like an emperor, and not much is needed. Eugene takes to the role with conniving relish, and is rather loath to give it up when the time comes to expose the switcheroo. Holm’s versatility is an astounding delight in both roles (which isn’t surprising, considering his recent successes with characters as dissimilar as Jack the Ripper and Bilbo Baggins), and he’s amusingly convincing as both the opportunistic imposter and the imperious Bonaparte. It’s likely that this whimsical historical fantasia would’ve evaporated with anyone else in the leads, especially when the height-challenged autocrat must stand down younger and taller adversaries.

His legions of conspiratorial supporters failing to materialize—except for a couple of veterans living in the past—Napoleon travels as a vagrant, coming into contact with his legacy as “the monster of Europe,” and catching on to his current irrelevance. Waterloo, he discovers, has been turned into a tourist attraction. Director Alan Taylor, the crown prince of HBO (The Sopranos, Sex and the City) knows his comedy, staging Napoleon’s travails as wryly comic vignettes. But more impressive is how he tailors each scenario to get beyond the cliches of the character: Napoleon is no longer the man he once was, a realization he confronts with steely self-awareness as well as comic pomposity.

This is a story not of great expectations, but of changed expectations. In Paris, no one believes Napoleon is Napoleon, including Pumpkin (Iben Hjejele), the bankrupt young widow he takes refuge with. Falling under the spell of his commanding charisma, she takes him to her bed, and soon enough, he is applying his leadership skills to the local melon market, rousing the villagers with a militarily precise sales campaign—at which point the audience may want to cheer as heartily as the farmers.

The Emperor’s New Clothes loses some of its droll enchantment while Napoleon waits on destiny in domestic contentment. And the scene in a madhouse full of patients suffering from Napoleon complex is a depressing misstep; much more effective are the brief glimpses of the high cost of empire on the working class. But thanks to Holm’s full-blooded portrayals (along with Rachel Portman’s jaunty score and the vibrantly historical production), the film ends on a note of wise and tempered triumph.

Funny Girrrl

Notorious C.H.O.
Directed by Lorene Machado

Margaret Cho, the comedienne who turned her failed experiences with Hollywood into inventive comic material in I’m the One That I Want, has evolved into the liberated clown princess of sex. In this, her latest concert film, she proves to be as fearless as she is funny.

As the performance took place in November of last year, Cho necessarily begins with a mention of the events of Sept. 11. She starts with appropriate solemnity, and then slips into a tone of voice that can be described only as “celebrity seriousness.” The characterization is perfect. The audience is taken in as she talks about visiting Ground Zero, right up to the payoff—when she says she’s been doing her part by “giving blow jobs to rescue workers every day.”

This also sets the stage for much of the performance. Cho is exuberantly sexually explicit. She talks about sex with tiny lesbians, sex while zippered up in leather gear in an S&M club, and sex while watching porn with an ex-boyfriend on the living room floor. If she isn’t talking about sex, she’s talking about matters involving sexual prefences (her father’s gay friend), or awkward bodily functions (colonics, menstruation). None of this seems raunchy. Cho’s distinctly distanced take on sex, and her ability to laugh at anything related to it, is disarming and liberating.

Cho is at her most memorable when portraying her mother. This is not necessarily because the material is funnier, but because her characterization is vivid and hilarious. These bits take up comparatively few minutes of screen time, but they’re brilliant.

The direction, by Lorene Machado, is mostly unobtrusive. In a concert film, this is the height of virtue. Most of Cho’s physical comedy takes place on her face; there’s a jarring moment when the director zooms in on her hands, and you realize that Cho is getting her zingers across with just her mug and voice. That Machado doesn’t distract from this—or draw too much attention to it—is an example of artistic common sense.

The only drawbacks to the film are the prologue and epilogue segments. There are interviews with concertgoers before and after the show, comments from Cho’s parents, and reflective musings from the comedienne herself. The fans all pretty much agree that Cho is the most wonderful personality on the planet. Her parents think she’s wonderful. Cho gratefully appreciates how delightful everyone finds her. On the one hand, showing the diversity of the audience is an interesting, worthwhile strategy. On the other hand, the fulsome praise might lead one to think that Cho is, deep down, just another very needy comic. After 90 minutes of inventive comedy, this revelation is not the way to end the film.

—Shawn Stone


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