Published Dec 01, 2002Who isn't a sucker for the sensitive-misfit schoolboy movie? At first glance, The Emperor's Club seems to have all the necessary ingredients: the emerald lawns of a private school lined with impressionable youth in red blazers, buttressed by formidable Romanesque buildings; the terse headmaster; the rigid, stuffy teacher who decides he can reach that one troubled student. But The Emperor's Club doesn't have the traditional message of the "genre." The sensitive schoolboy turns out to be more Machiavelli than Caulfield. Of course, this story is really about the teacher anyway. And while it has the requisite Dead Poets' Society-style sap, it's couched in a peculiarly conservative treatise on adolescent rebellion. In fact, it's almost downright cynical.
William Hundert, played by an uncharacteristically wooden Kevin Kline, is a teacher who has devoted his life to moulding the impressionable young men of St. Benedict's Academy for Boys. We meet Hundert as a white-haired retiree, but the bulk of the story focuses on a flashback to his 1976 Western civilisation history class. Hundert is fond of spouting Socrates, writing calligraphy on the blackboard as if he was a Benedictine monk translating the Bible, and chastising students to literally follow the path instead of walking on the grass. "Great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance," he sniffs, in one of his umpteen self-righteous moments of Inspirational Thought.
Hundert meets his match in the wayward ruffian Sedgwick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the son of a West Virginia senator. It seems that Bell wears the chip of privilege on his 15-year-old shoulder quite adeptly. Bell sets of cherry bombs, steals a canoe and portages to the all-girls school across the river (what is this, Little Darlings?), decorates his dorm room walls with Jean-Luc Godard posters, and reads French pornography. Hundert sees an opportunity to inspire Bell to change his back-talking, lazy ways and instil discipline and a love of classical antiquity in him.
After Bell succumbs to Hundert's harangues and starts to apply himself, Hundert fudges Bell's test scores and enrols him as a finalist in the annual Mr. Julius Caesar competition, a school-wide test of knowledge of the ancient Roman emperors. It's like Miss World for sweaty-palmed chess-club virgins. Bell loses the competition, but not after Hundert discovers that he is cheating. Under the orders of the headmaster, he is forced to keep his discovery to himself (due to the sizeable influence of Bell's philistine father). Hundert internalises his shame, and feels that he has failed to shape his student's character for the better.
Twenty-five years later, Bell is now one of the richest CEOs in the country. He offers to make a windfall donation to the school, but only if Mr. Hundert, who has since resigned from St. Benedict's after losing the headmaster position to a younger colleague, will preside over a rematch of Mr. Julius Caesar. Hundert's former class convenes on Bell's estate to don togas in a decidedly non-Animal House fashion and get their Greco-Roman trivia freak on. Those wild and crazy guys! All this builds to a truly preposterous climax that is at once cartoonish and cloying.
Kline is always at his best when he is allowed to be loose, sarcastic, and satiric. Playing solemn and dignified robs him of his verve and magnetism. As for Hirsch, he may look a little like a young Leonardo DiCaprio, but the similarities end there. I have yet to see him display any kind of charisma worthy of a sensitive-boy protagonist. (He marred last summer's Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys as well). Of course, the "clever" twist here is that Sedgewick Bell isn't sensitive, he merely lacks the character to be disciplined. Sure, he has admires Abbie Hoffman and listens to Bob Dylan, but he's not a revolutionary, he's simply a lazy opportunist that Mr. Hundert would never have been able to reach anyway.
It's a unique spin on the misunderstood misfit, but it couldn't ring more false. The impression we are left with is "free thinkers suffer from a lack of moral fibre." Bell likes to walk on the grass, so therefore he must be a threat to all that is righteous that Mr. Hundert holds dear. Although The Emperor's Club does contain a few well-studied moments of an aging moralist who has become as much of an antiquity as the men of history he discusses in his classroom, it fails to capture the sense of excitement and progressivism of its age. These boys go to school in 1976, but at St. Benedict's, it may as well be 1946. If a "man's character is his fate," as Mr. Hundert proclaims, than there isn't much point in trying to tempt it, is there. Somehow, this is a less than inspiring thought. Would Caesar have become the man he had if he hadn't tempted his own?