The Last Emperor (15)
Time Out saysThe odyssey of Emperor Pu Yi, from ruler of half the world's population to humble gardener in the People's Republic of China, is a saga of tidal historical turbulence with a small, often supine centre. Nations treated Pu Yi as a blank screen upon which they projected their ambitions, but Bertolucci's epic strives not to follow suit. The vast, gorgeous tapestry of visual delights is built around the question of one man's capacity for personal redemption, which - up to a point - transforms the puppet into protagonist. Pu Yi ascended the Dragon Throne at three but was forced to abdicate at six when China became a republic, and from then until his expulsion from the Forbidden City, his puissance was an empty charade, his palace a prison. This section of the film is sumptuously rich and strange, from the bewildering maze of the Forbidden City itself (with its 9,999 rooms) to the daily rituals surrounding the little Living God. Thousands of courtiers indulge his every whim, but can never allow him to venture outside; to some extent his Scottish tutor (O'Toole) replaces the forfeited warmth of his mother and wet nurse, later supplemented by an Empress (Chen). Given this outlandish upbringing, it is impossible to judge his subsequent showing as playboy in exile and dupe of the Japanese - neither section memorable. The film covers over half-a-century in flashbacks, contrasting at the start the rainbow glories with the grey reality of Communist confession, and gradually monitors its spectrum as Pu Yi rejoins the human race. John Lone is superb as the sad mediocrity; and if spectacle finally triumphs over sympathy, it is not without a decent struggle.