In the tradition of films contrived to mythologize inspiring
teachers, The Emperor’s Club falls short of making
the grade. If only the protagonist was more complex, like
John Keating ( Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society.
If only he taught at a less privileged, more grit-filled school,
like Mr. Clark (Morgan Freeman)
n Me. If only…
Mr. Hundert (Kline), a devoted prep school teacher,
believes that greatness equals contribution to society. He
tries to instill this tenet into the impressionable, obedient
minds at St. Benedictus School for Boys. Enter Sedgewick Bell
(Hirsch from The Dangerous Lives
Altar Boys), the fractious and unruly senator’s son, whose
mere presence incites disorder. Sedgewick is a constant impetus
for rule-breaking, and according to stereotype, his grades
are sub-par. Despite his bad-kid status, Hundert sees promise
in the boy, and attempts to permeate the young boy’s rough
exterior and mold him into a more mindful student.
Winning the “Mr. Julius Caesar” contest is the goal of the
boys’ academic aims, and Hundert encourages Sedgewick to participate
fully in the required essay quizzes. As a result, he does
deviate from his usual slacker mind-frame, but still comes
up a little short of qualifying in the top three for the main
competition. Against his own qualms, Hundert fudges the boy’s
cumulative score, allowing Sedgewick to undeservingly enter
the final competition. To Hundert’s dismay, however, the boy
cheats his way to almost winning.
Over two decades later, Hundert, much to his chagrin, is
passed up for dean of the reputable prep school. He questions
his personal worth and value as a teacher, and the outcome
of the “Mr. Julius Caesar” contest 25 years ago still perturbs
his otherwise honest mind.
Thematically, the text of the film takes up an interesting
issue regarding the inner struggles of teachers. “Those who
don’t do, teach,” the adage goes. But to Hundert, those who
don’t do, don’t contribute, so where does that leave his life
in the long list of great men
have preceded him?
Eventually, Hundert realizes his positive on most of his
former students supercede his one failure with insolent Sedgewick.
Throughout the film’s entirety, Academy Award winning Kline
is a commanding force in every scene. Relative newcomer Emile
Hirsch proves to be a scene stealer as well. The two actors
combat for the audience’s full attention on several levels,
and the resulting cinematic tension is engaging.
Unfortunately, the tightly woven fabric of the film, constructed
in the St. Benedictus class of 1976 atmosphere, frays in the
final third of the film, which is set over two decades later.
First off, the holes in the story line get stitched together
too fast. Hundert gets married, but where’s the love? Former
student James Ellerby gets the much
coveted dean position,
but when was it coveted in the first place? Certainly not
in any prior scene in the movie. Mr. Hundert’s characterization
falls flat, and the complexity of the film fumbles into simplicity.
Secondly, Sedgewick, now a mover and a shaker in the business
world, reunites his fellow classmates for a rematch of the
“Mr. Julius Caesar” contest on his sprawling Long Island estate.
The morals of the story become overt and pedantic in this
setting. Lying is bad. Once a cheater, always a cheater. We
get it. Sadly, the implicit nature of the storytelling present
beforehand is lost in this section of the film.
, The Emperor’s Club has memorable performances,
but lacks a cohesive, fully developed narrative structure,
so all recommendations must point to video.
—Sandra M. Ogle