January 4, 2003 -- "The Emperor's Club" is one of the better stories about teaching, joining such classics as "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and "Mr. Holland's Opus." Like those other films, this is about a long career in teaching at one school, and the effect a teacher can have on his students. It is not all warm and fuzzy, though. The teacher learns some bittersweet lessons along the way.
Kevin Kline of "Life as a House" stars as the teacher, William Hundert at St. Benedict's, an exclusive boy's school. His duty, as he sees it, is to instill the virtues of the greatest minds of the past into his students. He started off each class with a lesson regarding the accomplishments of Shutruk-Nahunte, a king who once led an army which pillaged the southern part of what is now called Iraq. Hundert noted that Shutruk-Nahunte remains an obscure historical figure because "conquest without contribution is meaningless." Hundert wants his students not only to excel in life, but to make a real contribution. Hundert is an excellent teacher, making ancient history come alive for his students, but he meets his match in Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch of "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys"), son of a powerful senator (played by Harris Yulin of "Training Day"). Bell is a very disruptive influence at the school, but when Hundert confronts the senator about his son's behavior, the senator informs him bluntly that he doesn't want Hundert trying to mold his son's character.
Hundert seems to have a breakthrough with Bell, however, in the preparations for the school's annual Roman history competition. Bell begins to study hard in an attempt to win the "Mr. Julius Caesar" competition. Hundert later makes a shocking discovery about Bell's participation in the event. He later makes another shocking discovery about the headmaster's position at the school, that he, as assistant headmaster, was in line for. The woman Hundert loves, Elizabeth (Embeth Davidtz of Thirteen Ghosts), marries another man. Bell openly defies Hundert's authority, but stays in school because of his father's influence with the board of directors. Yet Hundert endures each setback with grace and clings to the principles he has taught over the years. He remains true to himself, except for one lapse in judgement which he regrets deeply.
The entire story is told in flashback. We then pick up Hundert years later, in the present day. Some of his earlier setbacks have been reversed, some have not. One day, out of the blue, Hundert is invited to a remarkable re-enactment of the "Mr. Julius Caesar" competition staged by Bell, who has grown up to become a wealthy, successful businessman. Bell wants a rematch against his two old opponents and he wants Hundert to run the contest, just as he did before. Hundert uses this opportunity to right some old wrongs. He also learns more lessons about life, and not the kinds of lessons he was expecting. Kline is marvelous in the film, and is well-supported by the rest of the cast. Production values are high, with excellent photography, art direction and set design. The story is well-written. It is intelligent and not overly sentimental. It has good character development, but the story doesn't really go anywhere. It is more of a character study. This film rates a B+.
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