Napoleon Bonaparte, after his defeat at Waterloo, was exiled to the island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821. “Or so the history books tell us,” we are told smirkily in the opening moments of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
This is a charming “what if?” movie that merrily revises history just for the fun of it. What if Napoleon escaped his exile by switching places with a commoner who looked just like him? How would he manage, an emperor living in Paris in the disguise of a commoner?
Based on a Simon Leys novel and directed by HBO veteran Alan Taylor — he’s directed episodes of “Oz,” “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City” and “Six Feet Under” — “The Emperor’s New Clothes” could be called “Napoleon in Love,” focusing as it does on the course of true love and how it never did run smoothly.
Napoleon and his Doppelganger are played by Ian Holm, who is always a joy to watch. He pulls off the double-duty well. Napoleon has an aristocratic, impatient sharpness about him, while Eugene Lenormand, his lookalike substitute, is a goofy little man who thoroughly enjoys being a monarch, even if it is only on a tiny island in exile.
Back in Paris, the disguised Napoleon meets a recently widowed woman called Pumpkin (Iben Hjejle), who enjoys his company and has no idea of his true identity. His plan is to gather his loyal old friends together and retake the throne, but he is sidetracked and winds up rallying the local fruitsellers instead, using his skills as a master strategist to help them dominate produce sales in the district.
Pumpkin’s friend Dr. Lambert (Tim McInnerny) grows suspicious of who “Eugene” really is, but let us not forget: People who claim to be Napoleon are usually crazy. Once Napoleon throws off his disguise, will anyone believe him?
He goes on about his son, from whom he is estranged, but nothing comes of that. Instead, the focus remains on Napoleon’s relationship with Pumpkin, who is given warmth and personality by the very likable Iben Hjejle (from “High Fidelity”).
It is all light and funny stuff, with a lovely orchestral score by Rachel Portman (“Chocolat,” “The Cider House Rules”). There’s nothing spectacular here, but it is cutely, smartly entertaining.
B (1 hr., 46 min.; )