The Emperor's Club Reviews
This whistful looks into the world of academia is beyond cliche, from the oopsy moment of Professor Kline playing baseball with his students (and predicably smashes a deep fly ball that careens into the headmaster's car window - gee, where have I seen that before.... in just about every film of this genre).
Still, there is enough witty dialog and a certain moral question that makes me give this film a watchable rating (if you've got nothing better to do on a weeknight).
The main dramatic point of the film is a competition held each year called Mr. Julius Caesar, wherein Kline, the professor, gives the topic for a series of essays on Greco/Roman history. Kline then grades the essays, and comes up with a composite score. The top three then have a head to head competition in front of the rest of the school, taking turns answering increasingly difficult questions.
The moral question comes as Kline has befriended the son of a Senator, and is pleased that he has finally reached the difficult student - to the point where he judges with his heart and allows the boy into the top three (where of course he attempts to cheat).
I found this entire exercise to be distastful, but I've always found that making judgements on subjective writing to be thus. When the film later tries to make amends for Kline's lack of fairness, it just adds to the mediocracy; after all, he is supposed to be the hero, that pilar of moral judgement who is so loved by his former students. The points are made, driven in with a sledgehammer and the sentimentality so saccarin that my teeth hurt - derailing some of the more subtle points concerning honor.
This film is certainly no "Good Will Hunting", "The Great Debators" or even the cheeky "History Boys" - it's certainly not original, and really hasn't much new or important to say, even though at times it says it quite well. For that, you can forgive some of its transparancies and transgressions, like the weak attempt at a love interest for Kline - which was totally superflous and unneccessary.
In conclusion, one of the film's messages is that victory without morality, or contribution to society, is hollow and not what will be remembered over time - just as this film will fade away and be forgotten.
William Hundert, St. Benedict's assistant headmaster, practices what he teaches. Striving to inspire his students to live rightly, he's the kind of impassioned Classics professor who believes the history of the Greeks and Romans is more than just a lesson about the past. He also believes the role of a teacher is not only to educate the pupil but to mold his character. But in the fall of 1972, Hundert finds his cloistered world of tradition and influence upended with the arrival of new freshmen Sedgewick Bell, the son of a West Virginia senator. Almost immediately, teacher and student become embroiled in a turbulent battle of wills with repercussions that would still be felt a quarter of a century later.
Kevin Kline is amazing in this movie just like he is in all his roles. Had some good other actors that I like in this movie as well like Emile Hirsch, Jesse Eisenberg, Paul Dano, Patrick Dempsey, and others. Had the feel of Dead Poets Society, but definitely two very different films. The resemblance is the all boys school, and the brilliant teacher. But besides that, two different tales. One is more of the story of a teacher and the other of its students. I do prefer Dead Poets Society over this one though. Probably because I have been a student and never a teacher. Kevin Kline was great, but so was Emile Hirsch. He is one of today's greatest young actor's in my opinion. Love his work. Had quite a few of young good talents in this movie including the elder ones that made this movie so great. Thought the ending was surprising. Probably not a movie for all. Some will probably find it a bit boring. It was in some parts. But the acting is what pulls this movie through. Worth the watch for the performances if nothing else.
Kevin Kline, whom I knew most as the bumbling criminal Otto in "A Fish called Wanda", reversed all the characteristics of the role he became famous for and took on a mostly formalistic persona as the straightforward teacher, Mr. Hundert. Like all sentimental films yearning for some recall of memories to make a character evolve or eventually grow as a person, the film was told in a continuous flashback, looking at how his life as a Classics professor to able students could have been an ideal exercise of both his intellectual and emotional life; too bad he crossed paths with Sedgewick Bell(Emile Hirsch), a hard-headed, unprincipled youngster bent on breaking the conventions and rules of adequate education and the seemingly strong authority of Hundert himself.
The true highlight of the film for me is the first 'Mr. Julius Caesar' contest, because there it lay the raw tension and anticipation of every questions and answers. Every slight pauses of the contestants. Every utterance of 'That is correct' by 'Mr. Hundert. Yes, for me, there should have never been a contrived rematch 25 years later for some kind of 'regaining an intellectual honor'(That's Sedgewick Bell right there). What is he trying to prove? That after all those years, he wanted to retell the tale of how he outsmarted his professor and the whole school by cheating into victory? Or was it just pure cinematic 'contrivance' to bring up another 'contrivance'?
But then again, though I just can't fathom the logic of that particular 'rematch', I still quite liked the message of the whole film. If "Dead Poets Society" was about an educator's 'influence' to his students, "The Emperor's Club' is completely about the opposite. Although some teachers may say that they only teach because of the paycheck or because they just want to impart their knowledge to random minds, an unconscious inclination, I believe, always grows within them: that in some ways, they teach because they also want to touch 'lives' and in accord with human nature, also want theirs, although how experienced and filled up it may be, to be nurtured and embraced as well.
For the majority of his life, Mr. Hundert was always haunted by the idea of how Sedgewick Bell got away with all of it. He questioned himself how he hasn't done anything about it. Here came the essence of the whole 'rematch' contrivance(which I learned to embrace as it is); it's not Mr. Hundert that failed Sedgewick Bell. He was given a chance to excel, he transgressed. It's himself.
(This is a paragraph tailor-made for my reaction paper in Values Education regarding this film)"The Emperor's Club", above all, is an exploration of the realities of being a 'leader'. We live in an imperfect world inhabited by flawed individuals. Even Gandhi had his share of detractors. You just can't go in front of many people and collectively change their lives. What counts is whom you've changed, how, and if they are willing to. And in that case, Sedgewick Bell isn't. The Dathan to Moses. The Cassius to Julius Caesar. But beyond that are some 'Marc Antonys' that may just lend their trust, loyalty, and time for what you have to say.
Early performances by young actors who has since made names for themselves by starring in equally great films by their own rights(Paul Dano in "There Will Be Blood", Emile Hirsch in "Into the Wild" and Jesse Eisenberg in the most recent "The Social Network").
And the score is by Newton-Howard, and it is a good one indeed.
Anyway, I was fairly well handed this film by my father, which I later found out was less surprising when someone pointed out to me that it was similar to films like Stand and Deliver or Mr. Holland's Opus, but centered on a teacher of the Classics--which is one of my father's primary fields of interest, leading to a definite "Aha!" moment. William Hundert is a professor at St. Benedict's Preparatory School, teaching the Greco-Roman portion of the history of Western civilization to the studious young captains of industry to be. Kline is excellent as a teacher who is passionate about his field, arguing eloquently for his belief that this particular portion of history is essential to the education of all, not condescending to his students though obviously a proponent of rote memorization. His students are by and large enthusiastic--Louis Masoudi (Jesse Eisenberg) bears both a physical and a character resemblance to the kind of role Michael Cera is coming to be known for, a sort of happy, well-meaning fool who puts his foot in his own mouth without thinking, despite being fairly intelligent beside this. Deepak Mehta (why does that name sound so familiar?--Rishi Mehta) is the most studious of all, reading outside the necessary work for the class and taking it all very seriously. Young Martin Blythe (Paul Dano) is trying to live up to his father's example, he being a former "Mr. Julius Caesar"--the school's honorary title for winner of a contest of Classic knowledge. Into their life wanders Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), son of a senator (Harris Yulin--who I can't help but always think of screaming, "It's the Scolari brothers!" whenever I see him, but always good at playing reprehensible government officials) who is upset emotionally by his father's distance from him, who resorts to acting out and disrupting Hundert's education of the other students in an attempt to find a life for himself, caring little for what effect he has on the others, but in some way earning our acceptance as he tries to find some joy in life, when we can clearly see that this is not where he wants to be, so his lack of interest is almost forgiveable.
A visit to Bell's father by Hundert leaves Bell sullen and quiet, Hundert taking the opportunity to try and build some good into Bell's nature and to take him away from the egocentric and purely selfish approach of his father who cares little for the value of history. Now we see some events that feel familiar--there's the Mr. Julius Caesar contest, and we see Bell make a choice that leaves us sighing, we see Martin Blythe upset at his exclusion--I feared this would lead to melodramatic suicidal scenes, attempted or otherwise. Luckily, it did not. This is where, though, this film takes an interesting turn, one that piqued my curiosity as to how things would run. The reason for Blythe's exclusion is unusual and says something totally unexpected about Hundert, and the events that stem from this decision turn out somewhat contrasting to what we are used to seeing at this point in films criticized as schmaltzy. It ends up in some ways the antithesis of the streak of Capra I've been watching. Cynical corruption does not lose out, it is rewarded just as it often, unfortunately, is in reality. Yet, behind it, the meaning of it all is clear. People are all flawed, and while we can take chances, there are lines not to cross--but those crossed lines are ones we should not be unwilling to forgive. The influence of someone who feels passionate about their subject and encourages people to take interest in it and better themselves, using the ideas of the philosophers his passion has taken him in close contact with (Heraclitus, Socrates, even the emperors of Rome) is not negated by error, nor by failing one student.
What is underdeveloped here? In truth, less than I thought. In the end, it wrapped up more of those threads than the other two films I've mentioned. It seems, at first, that Blythe is going to be left sitting forlorn by a tree after losing out in the contest, but we see what comes of this finally. We see what comes of both Hundert and Bell's choices, we see that neither is instantly forgiven or correct or proven right or wrong in their actions, but see both the positive and negative ramifications of each, deserved and undeserved. However, the romance between Hundert and Elizabeth (Embeth Davidtz) is never addressed fully and feels tacked--no, not tacked on, but like it was a real thread, but one we didn't need to see. It feels real, it feels right, for these two characters, but it feels irrelevant, too. The thread of Headmaster Woodbridge (good ol' Edward Herrmann, uptight as usual, but in one of his less sympathetic roles) and his car, his leadership, his weakness--these aren't addressed. We simply flash forward to his inevitable death. We flash forward a lot at one point, losing 25 years that it feels like the writers didn't know how to cover.
On a final note? I was amused to note some of the Loeb classical library being placed into Hundert's suitcase at the beginning of the film, those little green and red volumes a sight common to the great majority of my life in some form or other.