Starring: John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Running Time: 163 mins
The Last Emperor is a British film about the life of Puyi, the last Emperor of China. Crowned at the age of 3 in 1908, Puyi’s reign was short-lived as the events of the Chinese Revolution and the Second World War took centre stage.
As a history lesson, The Last Emperor ticks all the right boxes. Fascinating, accurate and vast, this is the sort of film that you need to watch if you want to learn about the overview of 20th Century China. However, as a film, it’s not always quite so impressive, often lacking in emotional depth or effective pacing, making this an occasionally dry watch.
Let’s start on the positive side, and talk about how well this tells the story of Puyi’s life. Now, China in the 20th Century is my favourite part of history, bar none, so this is a film where I would have been very frustrated if there were glaring inaccuracies, but I’m delighted to say that there aren’t.
Of course, there are moments of dramatic license, but they don’t impact on your overall view of the main character and the surrounding events, so as an exercise in historical instruction, The Last Emperor excels to the highest level, and makes an interesting watch out of it too.
Detailing the mighty fall of the child emperor to a humble prisoner 60 years later in Communist China, it is fascinating to watch Puyi’s world dramatically collapse around him, particularly in the first act, where you get a striking lesson in just how outdated the imperial system was in China in the 1910s.
Apart from the history, another hugely impressive part of this film is its visual scope. Matching its near three-hour runtime, this feels like a proper historical epic, and that can be seen in every single shot. Whether it’s those early scenes shot on location in the Forbidden City, or the scenes set in the dark prison in the 1950s, this film is often stunning to look at, and that does make everything that happens throughout feel all the more important as it goes on.
The problem with The Last Emperor, however, is that it’s not a really great drama. Yes, the history is fascinating, and it succeeds on a visual level, but emotionally, it’s never so captivating. That’s generally down to the fact that the facts are the main part of the film, and the desperation that Puyi experiences at times is often lost underneath that. As a result, it can feel a little dry, and make some of the quieter, more reflective scenes, where emotion should be the main factor, drag on a bit.
And that’s my final issue with this film, that it’s not that well-paced either. Of course, in a film that runs at nearly three hours, I’m never expecting rapid pacing, but this film really struggles at times to keep itself moving, particularly in its second act, and that can have an impact on your engagement with the story as a whole.
Overall, I liked The Last Emperor, from a historical standpoint. Interesting and accurate, it achieves most of what it sets out to do, it’s just the lack of high emotional drama and occasionally uneven pacing that lets it down, and that’s why it gets a 7.5 from me.