Michael Hoffman’s latest film, “The Emperor’s Club,” is a combination of “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “Dead Poet’s Society” and “Pay It Forward” while also containing some flavor of the score from “Scent of a Woman.” Starring Kevin Kline as the beloved teacher of Greco-Roman civilization William Hundert, the film is yet another homage to those who instruct us in scholastic life and have the ability to make us who we are today. While “The Emperor’s Club” may not have the most unique roots in terms of a seeming sub-genre that has popped up in the last few years, it does contain unique lessons about the importance of “history” and personal integrity.
St. Benedict’s Academy for Boys is the prototypical East Coast college preparatory school complete with a Latin credo, gothic architecture and stern dean. Teaching at the school is William Hundert, whom all the students admire and is a man who holds knowledge and past history as the keys to understanding and perhaps enlightenment. It would be when the classic “troublesome, rebellious, lets-play-a-prank, son-of-a-really-important-man” student, Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch, “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys”), enters Hundert’s classroom that his sanctuary for learning is upset and he is forced to deal with helping this new student appreciate the value of knowledge.
The Academy holds an annual Julius Caesar contest in which the students participate to be crowned “Emperor” in a test of classical history. By giving Sedgewick his old textbook (along with a little ushering), Hundert is able to make the boy want to learn and compete for the prize. After several rounds of essay writing, in one of the most poignant scenes in the film, Hundert changes Sedgewick’s final exam grade from an A-minus into an A-plus, thus giving him the feeling of accomplishment he so desperately needs and the ability to compete in front of his peers and less than adequate father.
The final round proves to be more than a showing of wits in that Hundert catches Sedgewick cheating, but is powerless to do anything about it. Hundert now must live with the guilt of not only thinking he failed this one child, but betrayed another student by raising Sedgewick’s grade and thus ousting him from his rightful place as one of the final three.
Flashing forward to the boys’ graduation in 1976 and then moving on into the filmic present, an aged Hundert is betrayed by one of his colleagues for the position of the new headmaster. Defeated and dejected, Hundert retires to his home only to receive an invitation for a re-enactment of the Caesar competition by a now older and wealthier Sedgewick. Hundert is surrounded by this memorable group of former students and is able to see the many successes that he helped to create. The competition is a surprising repetition of history, but allows for Hundert to make amends with one of his former students and his soul.
While “Emperor’s Club” is a sort of amalgamation of various other “teacher homage” films, what sets it apart are the unique messages it conveys concerning the price of success and the importance of history. The very idea that a plus or a minus can perhaps change the course of one’s life is every student’s nightmare and while we are lead to believe that such an impact has been made, “Emperor’s Club” allows one to realize that while a single stroke of a pen may change one’s grade, it cannot alter one’s character.
Kevin Kline’s performance is masterful in his ability to express emotions without too much physicality. His presence on screen is like that of his character: bold, truthful, intelligent and honest. A Kevin Spacey or Robin Williams he is not, but one does gain the sense that at any moment the students could cry out “Oh Captain, My Captain!”