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Grade: B+

Counterfactual or hypothetical history has become increasingly important in recent decades, not only in the academic discipline but in fiction, including the movies (it’s long been popular on the printed page, of course). The most successful recent cinematic example was surely “Shakespeare in Love,” which speculated on the autobiographical possibilities of “Romeo and Juliet.” Now Alan Taylor offers “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” an amusingly irreverent rewriting of the latter years of Napoleon Bonaparte, which imagines that the emperor escaped exile on St. Helena, leaving an imposter in his place, and made his way back to France to reclaim power.

Needless to say, things don’t turn out as he’s planned. The fellow he’s left behind in confinement, who’s supposed to reveal his imposture and allow the escapee to declare himself to rally support, grows to like his pampered role, while Napoleon is forced to make a new, far less imperial, life for himself. In the process he gains a female companion–a woman with the unhappy nickname of Pumpkin (Iben Hjelje), the widow of an loyalist soldier, whose failing melon business the visitor uses his strategic genius to organize into a profitable venture while he awaits the moment to reveal himself. In the last segment of the picture, Napoleon, frustrated by the death of the imposter who’s still presumed to be him, must decide whether to persist in claiming his name–a path that might well lead to confinement as a madman–or accept a bourgeois existence under the restored Bourbon monarchy.

If one wanted to give Taylor’s picture a subtext, he might suggest that it’s a clever fable about the slipperiness of identity (see also “The Return of Martin Guerre”); but talking in those terms would inflate the script that the director, along with Kevin Molony and Herbie Wave, has confected from a novel by Simon Leys beyond all reasonable limits. As the jocular title suggests, the movie is intended as a divertissement, a shaggy-dog story delivered with style and skill, offering equal measures of humor and pathos.

Ian Holm is at his very considerable best in the dual role of Bonaparte and the bumptious sailor, Eugene Lenormand, who replaces him in exile. He differentiates the two beautifully, giving to Napoleon a haughty, superior air which seems utterly natural (and never grows unsavory) while keeping the imposter from becoming too broad a caricature. Hjelje matches him with a radiant performance that shows the widow’s sensitivity as well as her strength.

The rest of the cast offer splendid support, with Tim McInnerny resisting the temptation to exaggerate as a physician who’s Bonaparte’s rival for Pumpkin and Hugh Bonneville (so fine in “Iris”) having a fine time as one of the emperor’s companions in captivity. The film might not have been a big-budget production, but it puts most that are to shame: the locations are expertly chosen and used, and the period detail is exceptional (praise for production designer Andrea Crisanti, art director Carlo Rescigno and costumer Sergio Ballo); and cinematographer Alessio Gelsini Torresi has captured it all in lush, lovely tones that suggest the atmosphere of a half-remembered fairy-tale (there are a couple of unforgettable shots of the horizon to savor, as well as a splendidly moody sequence set in the forest at Waterloo). To add to the aural pleasure of the fine dialogue, Rachel Portman contributes a superb score, properly pompous in good imperial fashion but with a nicely delicate touch in the more intimate moments.

The result is a historical re-imaging of grace, wit and surprising poignancy, combining gentle humor, charm and a touch of whimsical melancholy in a remarkably enjoyable whole. It may be too refined and sophisticated a piece for the mass audience, and at the close it does rather pile up the climactic scenes, but it should certainly appeal to you if, for example, you found 1994’s “The Madness of King George” (which featured a similarly brilliant performance by Nigel Hawthorne) to your liking. It’s unequivocally the best picture about Napoleon since Abel Gance’s epic of 1925–although the compliment will pale when you recall that the competition includes such duds as “Desiree” (1954) with Marlon Brando, and “Waterloo” (1971) with Rod Steiger. And it will serve as a fine complement to Yves Angelou’s “Colonel Chabert” (1994), which also concerns the return of an officer from Napoleon’s army to a reception that is, in its own fashion, equally frustrating and intriguing.


Is there any hoarier premise for an action thriller–the old chestnut about an amnesiac, rescued from certain death and hunted by shadowy enemies, who just might be some sort of government agent? The premise is so musty that it was the basis for an old, long-forgotten TV series (Herb Brodkin’s “Coronet Blue,” which aired briefly in 1967); even this take on the scenario by Robert Ludlum is a retread, having previously served as the basis for not only his book but an ABC miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain back in 1988.

Yet in the hands of Doug Liman, who gets his big studio break after helming the intriguing indies “Swingers” and “Go,” “The Bourne Identity” seems almost freshly minted. Thanks to the director’s clear eye for composition and skill at choreographing brisk action sequences, the great work of the design team led by Dan Weil, Oliver Wood’s classy cinematography (which makes good use of the European locales and the satisfyingly jagged effect a hand-held camera can provide if sensitively employed) and Saar Klein’s sharp editing, the picture takes viewers on a old-fashioned roller-coaster ride hearkening back to all the Hitchcock classics about a “wrong man” on the run from relentless pursuers. There’s nothing terribly suspenseful in the plot–we’re made aware within minutes who the poor fellow fished out of the Mediterranean with two bullet holes in his back is and what his mission was, and why rogue elements of the U.S. intelligence establishment are out to get him; nor is there much doubt about how things are going to turn out. But Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron have done an astute job of updating Ludlum’s Cold War tale to the contemporary world, and Liman and his collaborators, like Hitchcock himself, prove adept at grabbing the viewer and carrying him along even in the absence of plausibility and any great twists or shocking revelations. The picture may seem a weightless thing in retrospect, but while it’s unfolding it’s exciting and engrossing.

This kind of piece, of course, depends not only on the craftsmen behind the camera but the leads in front of it–plural, needless to say, because every runaway hero requires an attractive, unexpectedly resourceful girl to help him along the way. Liman is fortunate indeed in the casting of Matt Damon and Franka Potente in these roles. Damon ably exhibits both the strong physicality and the underlying emotional vulnerability needed to make Jason Bourne–the name by which the character is mostly known in the picture–a guy one can both buy as a master CIA assassin who can outfight and outshoot anybody and get out of the toughest of crapes, and sympathize with despite his character’s admittedly dark past. What’s great about Damon’s work here is that he shows himself not merely a credible action star but a quite capable actor; with this performance and his excellent turn in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” he establishes himself as one of the best young leading men in the business. For Potente, who starred in Tom Tykwer’s cult classic “Run Lola Run,” the role of Marie Kreutz could represent her breakthrough to international stardom, much as similar parts brought European leading ladies to the attention of American audiences in the thirties and forties. She captures the character’s uncertainty, fear, growing confidence and increasing affection for Bourne without falling into cliche, and exudes a sense of foreign mystique which is always fetching. The villains have been well-selected, too. Gloomy-faced Chris Cooper manages to suggest a real streak of meanness as the CIA operative who’s Bourne’s nemesis, while beefy Brian Cox easily inhabits the role of Cooper’s more politically attuned superior. There are also a number of steely-eyed killers sent out to terminate Bourne, with extreme prejudice as they used to say, and among them Clive Owen stands out for a scene in which he and Damon stalk each other in the wintry French countryside. Julia Stiles is perfect in a small secondary role–that of a well-appointed young woman who presides over surveillance devices at a CIA haven in the French capital. It’s not a showy part, but the actress makes the most of it.

“The Bourne Identity” doesn’t attempt anything innovative, but it succeeds by doing the tried and true very effectively: even an old-style car chase through the streets of Paris has real electricity to it. The picture is proof that though the material may be recycled, a well-chosen cast and a high level of craftsmanship can still work wonders with it. Sheer professionalism, it appears, is sometimes enough; in this case it makes even a Ludlum potboiler feel like a solid Le Carre–no mean achievement.