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Emperor | Review

Classroom Exercise: Webber’s Latest Historical Drama Dry and Sleepy

Peter Webber Emperor Arriving with all the subdued excitement of a vaguely written history textbook comes Peter Webber’s latest film, Emperor, which documents the true story of one man’s task to investigate Japan’s leader General Hirohito during America’s post World War II occupation under the control of General Douglas MacArthur. The task is to unveil just how responsible the Japanese leader was for reprehensible war crimes, the evidence to be used to decide how the Americans pardon or prosecute. While this sounds like a deliriously ripe scenario for intrigue and melodrama, Webber’s film contains neither, instead deciding to saddle it with a deadening war time romance, and rotating mechanically back and forth between a politically explosive scenario and lost love. While Webber is best known for his debut film, an adaptation of the novel The Girl With a Pearl Earring, here he only manages to capture a scene stealing performance from an underutilized Tommy Lee Jones.

General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) has been dispatched to Japan to assist the American occupation. Once there, he is immediately assigned by General MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) to investigate Hirohito’s actions and overall responsibility in the country’s war atrocities and is given ten days to do so. Fellers is painfully aware that the prosecution of Hirohito will most likely lead to a revolt from the Japanese who proudly and faithfully serve their leader. As he struggles valiantly to find pardoning evidence, he meets a lot of officials unwilling to talk. Thankfully he bonds with his driver, and through their interactions we learn that Fellers is actually distracted from his mission by his search for his lady love (Eriko Hatsune), who he met back in the good old pre-war days when she was a student in America. Meanwhile, MacArthur seems to be comfortable mugging for the media, leaving Fellers all on his own in the mountingly tense investigation, tested by fellow colleagues that resent his love for a Japanese woman. Of course, history has already written what final decision MacArthur makes based on the findings of Fellers’ investigation.

If that sounds dry, dusty, and horribly clichéd it’s because Emperor is never elevated beyond such trappings. While the film obviously isn’t commanding the sort of budget to drown out its faults with explosive action sequences, it definitely would have helped if the script didn’t feel so evasively dodgy, attempting to create tension when it knows it cannot. David Klass and Vera Blasi’s screenplay really stumbles with its half-assed romantic entanglement with Fellers and a young Japanese woman considered too outspoken to be culturally acceptable (hence why she is shipped off to the States for her schooling). While this could be construed as an attempt to juxtapose the cultural disparities of the young lovers, it instead seems one more useless and maligned detail, especially considering she doesn’t really ever get to speak, popping up in random flashbacks when Fellers should be focusing on his intense assignment.

Matthew Fox, while not as woefully miscast as he is some of his recent choices (it seems cruel to mention Alex Cross, but as a case in point), seems utterly dead behind the eyes, his performance so utterly lackluster one can’t wait for the inevitable historical moment when we can finally stop watching his bungled efforts. Thankfully, there’s a supporting role for Jones as comic relief, playing MacArthur like a crusty old bitchy prima donna that was nothing if not an unabashed attention whore. It’s almost impossible to gauge how good Jones is here, for surely in a better made film might make him seem more ridiculous. In Emperor, he’s the lifeboat.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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