November 22, 2002 | Be forewarned: The Emperor’s Club takes a defiantly severe if not absolutist view of ethical rigor (good), moral relativism (not so good) and ends-justifies-means compromise (very, very bad). By doing so, the movie leaves itself open to snide mockery by cynics and ironists – that is to say, most film critics – who take a far more flexible approach to those weighty matters.
Even so, speaking as someone who stands far to the left of William Bennett and other professional moralists, I must admit that I liked Emperor’s Club much more than I expected, and that I found the movie becoming increasing more interesting and complex as director Michael Hoffman (Soapdish, Restoration) nimbly nudged it toward a not-entirely-predictable conclusion.
Unlike most sentimental dramas of its kind -- Dead Poets Society and Mr. Holland’s Opus are only its most obvious predecessors – this tale of an inspiring teacher and his inspired students actually dares to hint that, from time to time, the teacher might come off as smugly sanctimonious at best, none-too-subtly bullying at worst. Better still, in addition to giving glimpses of the teacher’s failings, the movie also renders what likely is his greatest failure. With refreshing honesty, Emperor’s Club gradually reveals that, unfortunately, some students are immune to inspiration, and grow up to become adults who avoid anything so inconvenient as a moral absolute.
Neil Tolkin’s well-crafted screenplay – based on The Palace Thief, a short story by Ethan Canin – is neatly divided into two acts. The first half, set in 1972, could stand alone as a satisfying morality play with a ruefully clever O. Henry twist. But the second half, set 25 years later, expands and enhances the narrative by upending our expectations about second chances and redemption. “A man’s character is his fate,” teacher William Hundert (Kevin Kline) announces in an early scene. The rest of the movie illustrates just how correct that observation is.
Hundert is introduced as assistant headmaster at St. Benedict’s, a prestigious prep school where students wear striped neckties and insignia-emblazoned blazers, and teachers can command the sort of attentive deference that one imagines Jesus Christ received from his disciples. In the cloistered world of St. Benedict’s, some teachers are more godlike than others. And Hundert, a Classics professor, comports himself with Almighty self-assurance as he eagerly exhorts his flock to discern relevant moral teachings in the lives and writings of ancient Greeks and Romans.
There’s trouble in paradise only when a rude, rule-bending rebel arrives at St. Benedict’s. Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the pampered son of a West Virginia senator (Harris Yulin), wins friends and influences people by introducing his classmates to girlie magazines, and encouraging a skinny-dipping soiree near a neighboring all-girls school. He also manages to undermine Hundert’s authority, with a touch of blasphemy here – he refers to ancient Emperors as Seven Dwarfs, or worse -- and a dollop of sarcasm there.
To his credit, Hundert sees Bell as an infidel to be enlightened, not an enemy to be crushed. (Well, OK: Maybe he really sees the mouthy rich punk as a mind to be molded, but you get the idea – his intentions are noble.) In the course of this renovation project, Hundert comprises his own high standards by passing over a more academically worthy student to give Bell a chance to compete in the school’s annual Mr. Julius Caesar competition, a kind of High School Quiz Bowl for Classics students. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a big mistake.
And when Bell – who grows up to be a wealthy businessman with political ambitions – tries to set things right, for himself and Hundert, in a 25-years-later rematch, Hundert is the one who’s taught a lesson about history. Specifically, he learns just how easily it can repeat itself.
Kline gives an aptly fussy yet oddly engaging performance, vividly conveying the best and worst qualities of a certain type of academic who, for better or worse, never is forgotten by his or her students. It’s a risky piece of work, primarily because Kline doesn’t shy away from underscoring Hundert’s less appealing qualities. (He’s much more of careerist than he wants to admit, and his thin-skinned ego is punctured easily.) On the other hand, the actor’s willingness to appear less than completely selfless makes the character less of an archetype, and more of a human being.
Embeth Davidtz is under-used as the eventual Mrs. Hundert, and Joel Gretsch is a tad too obvious as the grown-up Sedgewick Bell. But Emile Hirsch (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) hits all the right notes as the younger Bell, illustrating just how seductive – there’s really no other word to describe it -- rebellious bad boys can be for both those who wish they could emulate them, and those who want to “redeem” them.
Just curious: For reasons never explained, young Bell has posters from movies by French New Wave maverick Jean-Luc Godard (Contempt, Breathless) on his dorm room wall. Is this director Hoffman’s way of telling us that true rebels always can recognize and appreciate each other? And – gulp! -- is this something only someone as pedagogic as Hundert would think to mention?