6 July 2003 | Buddy-51
All Hail Kevin Kline
From `Goodbye Mr. Chips' in the 1930's to `Dead Poet's Society' in the 1980's, the movies have had a long-running love affair with inspirational, sentimental stories set at ivy-covered, collegiate-gothic, all-male prep schools. These films inevitably center around a beloved teacher and the lifelong bond he forges with his devoted students.
The latest addition to the genre a successful one is `The Emperor's Club,' with Kevin Kline assuming the role of the teacher who considers it his duty not only to instruct his students in the details of classical history but to mold them into men of integrity and character in the process. `The Emperor's Club' follows the standard formula up to a point. William Hundert is the most highly respected faculty member at St. Benedict's Academy. He is able to bring the history of the ancient Greeks and Romans to vivid life for his admittedly highly motivated young charges. Then, one day, into his classroom strides Sedgwick Bell, a bright, highly unmotivated student who would rather mock the stuffiness of education and inspire his buddies to feats of rabblerousing than devote his life to the serious pursuit of academia. It, thus, becomes Hundert's job to turn Sedgwick around, a feat that always seems much easier to accomplish in the movies than it ever is in real life.
`The Emperor's Club,' after its rather conventional beginning, deviates from its predecessors in one key respect: Hundert, though a man of values and integrity, is not above compromise himself, and he winds up making a very serious one, the ramifications of which he has to live with for many years to come. Rather than showing him as some sort of saintly figure, screenwriter Neil Tolkin (working from a short story by Ethan Canin) and director Michael Hoffman allow Hundert's humanity to shine through. He is a flawed individual who permits personal feelings to cloud his judgments and who is willing, once he has created a problem, to allow the truth of his own guilt to remain hidden even when innocent victims suffer as a result of his actions. `The Emperor's Club' is also notable for its clear-eyed recognition that not all situations in life need have a satisfying resolution, that some people simply do not acknowledge their own failings and, therefore, never develop into morally superior people no matter how many experiences life throws at them. Yet, what breaks Hundert's heart is the recognition he comes to that such a person is often times more highly rewarded by the world than the man who follows along the straight-and-narrow path all his life.
Kline gives a superb performance as Hundert, capturing the quiet dignity, understated passion and conflicted conscience of a man who loves his boys and who tries to do the right thing but who, like the rest of us, doesn't always succeed in doing so. Emile Hirsch is also excellent as young Sedgwick, the boy whose need for attention and lack of moral guidance from his father lead him to accept the winning-at-all-cost philosophy to get him through life.
`The Emperor's Club,' despite having its roots firmly planted in a grand storytelling tradition, still manages to take us into new territory from time to time and its recognition of the importance of education and academics (we actually get to learn a little about Roman history while watching the movie) makes it virtually unique among films of its time.