One of the hardest stories to make into a Best Picture winner must have been ‘The Last Emperor’. The majority of epics take a story of a nobody and show how their character develops through a series of events to end in a big moment in their life or their dramatic death. ‘The Last Emperor’ does the opposite. It takes the story of Pu-Yi, who at the age of three becomes the emperor of China in 1908. He lives in the Forbidden City and never leaves. His life within these walls is excessive, but the outside world is unsafe and he is essentially a prisoner in his own home. By 1967, after many events he is a gardener in the Beijing Botanical Gardens.
‘The Last Emperor’ is not an easy film to watch. It is very long and deals with an unusual main character who is awkward and not easy to warm to, but it is a triumph of cinema: filming the impossible.
This film was made possible by one of the greatest directors ever: Bertolucci. He handles the topic in a very clever manner by having the main story running from 1950 to his death, with the childhood and years as the emperor told as a series of lengthy flashbacks. Although the technique of flashbacks is hardly revolutionary, I have seldom seen it so well done. Certain things trigger the memory of the Emperor and Bertolucci takes this opportunity to contrast the drab life of the older man to the colourful and extravagant life of his childhood.
The artistic quality of this film is outstanding. Every scene is shot in such a beautiful way: the costumes, cinematography, scripting: all carefully done to transport the viewer to the different eras.
It’s not a film that includes great famous performances. Although the film won all of the nine Oscars for which it was nominated, it did not include a single nod to the acting force. It did not help that the Emperor was played by different actors throughout the timeline, but each of the actors playing this unusual character bring something new to the role. Whereas Pu-Yi is a difficult character to really get inside, the actors are almost like props in this sumptuous epic. One actor who does shine is Peter O’Toole as the tutor who cares for the young emperor. He is the voice of reason in the Emperor’s surreal world and provides his usual level of wit that we have learnt to expect from such a great actor.
It is ultimately a film made possible by two men: Bernardo Bertolucci who proves himself as a wonderful director, able to make an epic that is both vast and intimate, and Pu-Yi, one of the most interesting and surprisingly not well known figures of the 20th Century.