"The Emperor's Club" is a peculiar movie


An Illusion review by Joan Ellis

            “The Emperor’s Club” is a peculiar movie that you will watch with both pleasure and pain.  Watching Kevin Kline is always a pleasure, though it’s a miracle that he could keep his composure considering what he is asked to do.  Watching filmmakers fail is always painful considering the resources at their disposal.  “The Emperor’s Club” is riddled with cliché and predictability.  You’ve seen this movie so many times you may not even resent me for discussing the plot. 

                William Hundert (Kevin Kline) teaches Greek and Roman history at St. Benedict’s Academy for Boys, a prep school in the oldest of traditions.  Honorable to the core, and passionate about his subject, Mr. Hundert is a beloved campus figure.   His students, alive with respect for their teacher, study names, dates, and places with dedication.  They begin to pattern themselves on his belief that  “a man’s character is his fate,” and on the school ideal that “the end depends on the beginning.”  So far, so good with Mr. Chips.

                In a plot turn far too close to “Dead Poets Society,” Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the arrogant son of an arrogant absentee father (Harris Yulin) who is, of course, a U.S. senator, walks into Mr. Hundert’s classroom.  Bell undermines the teacher with an immediate barrage of rude remarks.  Mr. Hundert loses the admiration of his students – far too suddenly to be credible.  When the teacher compromises his own principles in an effort to set the boy straight, he hurts two students and himself.  At that point the  movie jumps from a story of school days to a morality play, another movie altogether.  Neither works.  

                Bell the father has taught Bell the son the ways of arrogance.  Among the lessons:  like father, like son; loyalties are skin deep; money talks; masters of the universe condescend to teachers; politicians are crooks. They save the worst for last.  An eight-year-old boy overhears his father’s confession of Enron style ethics, grasps the situation in all its complexity, makes his judgment, and stalks off.   Is it possible that contemporary moviemakers are too young to have seen the string of private school movies that have done this kind of thing better? 

                  Watch for good performances from Emile Hirsch, Paul Franklin, Jessie Eisenberg, and Rishi Mehta as students, but be ready to cringe at the contrivances used by the writer Neil Tolkin and director Michael Hoffman to deliver a drama as old as the hills of Rome.    

                If you go, and I don’t recommend that, enjoy Kevin Kline’s ability to remind us what it is like to walk into the classroom of a passionate teacher.  His Mr. Hundert is there because he believes deeply that willful ignorance and not knowing what happened before you were born are intolerable conditions.  Mr. Kline creates a legendary teacher who is at once debonair, formal, consistent, and dedicated.  He is also convincing in a movie that is anything but. 


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