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.