The Emperor's Club


Directed by: Michael Hoffman
Written by:Neil Tolkin
Starring: Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch, Embeth Davidtz, Rob Morrow, Edward Herrmann
Released: March 20, 2003
Grade: A

“Great aspiration without contribution is of insignificance.  What will your contribution be?  How will history remember you?”  The words of teacher William Hundert as he addresses his class for the first time at the St. Benedicts School For Boys.  As assistant headmaster, Mr Hundert passionately preaches the importance of honour and virtue in living one’s life.  Teaching his students the valuable lessons learnt in classical history, he aims to mould the character of his students into something they can be proud of.  This is his contribution.

In the summer of 1972, a new arrival to the school would leave Mr Hundert questioning his ideals for the rest of his life.  The son of a senator, Sedgewick Bell was a disruptive brat (marginally over-played by newcomer Emile Hirsch) who used his smart mouth to ridicule teachers and earn popularity from his classmates.  Drawing on his own personal experiences, Mr Hundert sensed the unspoken pressures being applied to Sedgewick by his famous father and reached out to help him.

Mr Julius Caesar is a title bestowed on the student of the school who demonstrates the best knowledge of Roman history.  The competition has been in existence for almost a century and photos of the winners line the walls of the long corridors.  A series of challenging essays are set to determine the three top students before these finalists compete in a public shootout with increasingly difficult questions being posed by Mr Hundert until one man remains standing.  Could the improving Sedgewick make the final cut and satisfy Mr Hundert’s belief in his ability.

What begins as a beautiful woven feel-good drama then takes an incredible (yet totally believable) series of shocking twists.  Most modern-day filmmakers put little thought into “twists” - they think an audience will be impressed by something startling despite the fact it doesn’t fit the story, makes little sense and lacks in realism.  This crafty screenplay from Neil Tolkin keeps luring the audience into a satisfied sense of comfort before having them suddenly revaluating their position on the virtue of these characters.

Kevin Kline is at his brilliant best in the leading role.  It’s such a controlled performance – he speaks with exuberant vigour in his classroom, clinging to his deeply held principals and transfixing them onto those in front of him.  He utters invaluable quotes based on decades of experience – the kind of advice which few teens are exposed to.  Mr. Hundert will leave a lasting impression on his students but so to will these students leave a lasting impression on Mr. Hundert.

The stylish Michael Hoffman (Restoration, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) uses his soft, precise direction to textbook effect.  Hoffman himself has a background in the subject having studied the classics at Oxford University, and in fact is a Rhodes scholar.  But his true attraction to the project I couldn’t agree with more – in his own words “the film has the ability to turn the genre on its ear”.

The script itself is based on a short story penned by Ethan Canin known as The Palace Thief.  Backed by Hungarian cinematographer Lajos Koltai (Malena), Academy Award winning production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein (Amadeus), and the underrated composer James Newton Howard (My Best Friend’s Wedding) the director effortless takes us into this picture-perfect 70s campus and the world of Mr. Hundert.  We are the students in Hoffman’s cinematic classroom.

No more highly can I recommend The Emperor’s Club but expect the unexpected.  A valuable reference Mr. Hundert leaves his class is that “it is not living that is important, but living rightly.”  To see this film, would be living rightly.