Inspirational boys-school drama makes the grade
Despite a superficial similarity between Dead Poets Society and The Emperor’s Club (including their markedly comparable titles), this morality tale set at an all-boys school presents quite a different story than Robin Williams’ inspirational weeper. Less concerned with seizing the day than pursuing integrity, it focuses on the importance of a man’s character as it explores questions of morality, ethics, and above all, honor.
Kevin Kline stars as ancient history professor William Hundert, a living legend as revered by his students and fellow teachers as any of the early emperors included in his classroom lectures. The very model of integrity, he lives by the code of honor he attempts to instill in all of his students.
St. Benedict’s Academy, where Hundert teaches, is the kind of school that only exists in movies; an institution where an entire student body of adolescent boys will listen in earnest rapture to a headmaster’s orientation speech, and where giddy spontaneous group outbursts occur, more often than not, in Latin. For students at St. Benedict’s, the highest honor imaginable is to be crowned “Mr. Julius Caesar” in the school’s annual academic contest. An age-old tradition, the contest is the focal point of the entire year, and winning it is the penultimate aspiration of each boy at the school. Consequently, the young men devote all their energy to studying the minutiae of life in ancient Greece and Rome, even going so far as to wear togas to class in the spirit of the competition.
All is perfect in this academic paradise until the arrival of Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), a rebel with a capital “R” who happens to be a powerful senator’s son. We know Sedgewick’s bad news by his haircut – even though it’s set in the 1970’s, he’s the only boy with a groovy shag. Sure enough, within days of his arrival, Sedgewick has introduced his fellow students to the finer things in a young man’s life, including cigarettes, pornography and, best of all, the girl’s school across the lake.
Professor Hundert is shocked at the boys’ outrageous behavior. But more than that, he’s hurt by his students’ betrayal not only of him, but, more importantly, of their intellectual pursuits. Determined to bring out the untapped potential he sees within Sedgewick, he makes it his mission to turn the kid around. During the ensuing battle of wills, Hundert identifies an opportunity to help the unruly boy. And although he fully understands the difficulties involved in molding this less-than-stellar student into the young man he might one day become, Hundert doesn’t recognize the impact it could have on his own cherished principles until the damage has already been done.
Bathed in the idyllic glow of nostalgia, The Emperor’s Club has Oscar written all over it. Seemingly built from the blueprints of previous Academy Award winners, it hits all the right notes with calibrated precision. This isn’t an indictment; on the contrary, it’s because the film works so well that it’s sure to be an Oscar favorite next spring. Rousing one minute and introspective the next, this film does more than merely offer a two-hour diversion. It engages viewers with a thoughtful examination of life, of right and wrong, and of actions and their consequences.
As in any film created to achieve maximum Oscar potential, everything that happens here carries significant weight and importance. Too often, though, life is presented strictly in black-and-white terms. Things are good or bad, easy or hard, right or wrong. To his unqualified credit as a performer, Kline’s character never descends into the two-dimensional realm it could have. Rather, Hundert is clearly a mere mortal, gallantly striving to be worthy of the respect he receives from others. Faced with difficult decisions, he struggles with his conflicting desires to do the right thing and to simply do good.
Kline is surrounded by an terrific supporting cast, including Jesse Eisenberg (recently seen in Roger Dodger) as an earnest student and Rob Morrow as a fellow professor with his own ideological ambiguities. “A man’s character is his fate,” says Hundert, over and over again. Although it’s demonstrated numerous times within the film itself, this philosophy just might be proven again come Oscar time, if Kline receives the recognition he deserves for creating such a wonderful character here.
Michael Rucker has written for HX, Empire, and Time Out New York.
(Appeared in Gay City News)