That Bertolucci -- with his momentous visual choreography, and Vittorio Storaro's velvety cinematography -- manages to touch on all of this makes The Last Emperor a remarkable achievement. The politics and pageantry tend to overrun the story at times, but it seems appropriate -- Emperor Pu Yi was overwhelmed by such things.
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A hesitant, conservative approach that yields great elegance and a rhythm that carries the viewer along. Yet the film is haunted by a sense of opportunities not taken, of an artist deliberately reining in his artistry. [9 Dec 1987, p.2]
Bernardo Bertolucci's visually ravishing spectacle about the life of Pu Yi is a genuine rarity: a blockbuster that manages to be historically instructive and intensely personal at the same time.
The movie's considerable emotional force springs from the splendor of its visual poetry. Mr. Bertolucci allows the sweep of 60 years of Chinese history to unfold around Pu Yi as background noise to his peculiar, poignant role in the emergence of modern China. [25 Nov 1987, p.1]
Stunning opulence dazzles the eye.
It probably is unforgivably bourgeois to admire a film because of its locations, but in the case of The Last Emperor the narrative cannot be separated from the awesome presence of the Forbidden City, and from Bertolucci's astonishing use of locations, authentic costumes and thousands of extras to create the everyday reality of this strange little boy.
The Last Emperor is like an elegant travel brochure. It piques the curiosity. One wants to go. Ultimately it's a let-down.