- The Washington Times - Friday, November 22, 2002

"The Emperor's Club" is a modestly appealing and commendable rarity: a parable about the regrets and consolations of pedagogy that might have been intended for the "Jeopardy" audience. There's a catch during two pivotal episodes devoted to contests of knowledge between a trio of finalists, set 25 years apart: The only category is Roman history. However, this in itself is a beguiling sort of novelty for a mainstream movie. For all one knows, the answers could prove useful to future "Jeopardy" contestants.
Derived from "The Palace Thief," the concluding, title story in a set of four written by Ethan Canin, the movie remains faithful to the plot and principal characterizations while compressing the time frame. The original author began in the late 1940s and concluded in the present. Screenwriter Neil Tolkin and director Michael Hoffman backtrack only to 1976, which begs a few questions about the influence of that decade on a group of prep school students.
For example, it seems a little miraculous that drugs never cloud the minds of anyone at elite and prestigious St. Benedict's Academy for Boys, supposedly located in the Virginia countryside, an hour or so from Washington.
The problem case that haunts Kevin Kline as a dedicated but self-deceiving and miscalculating classics teacher named William Hundert would seem a likely source of up-to-the-minute corruption: Emile Hirsch as a smug newcomer named Sedgwick Bell, the son of a West Virginia senator.
He is credited with harboring girlie magazines in a footlocker, but it's difficult to believe similar publications haven't been hidden and passed around by countless boys for generations. Sedgwick also foments a near-scandal at neighboring St. Mary's Academy for Girls, but like all the sex teases inserted during the movie, it proves halfhearted and expendable.
If Hundert drew any parallels between Rome's military setbacks and the American experience in Vietnam, we don't overhear them during the class sessions depicted in "The Emperor's Club."
The only movie references are posters for Jean-Luc Godard films, "Breathless" and "Contempt," far from current but evidently Sedgwick's favorites. They would seem to identify the possessor as a moviegoing odd duck around campus. You would never guess that it was the period of "The Godfather," "Jaws" and "Carrie."
Persuasion of another sort eludes the filmmakers: Sedgwick's purported credentials as a campus pied piper are never established even in tenuous respects, although the plot requires that we overestimate his powers to charm, sway and deceive. Like "School Ties," this new morality tale with a prep school setting recycles the "bad seed" character. Now it also implies that he may be immune to peer pressure of an improving kind.
It is Hundert's misfortune to be vain and naive enough to believe he can have a decisive influence on Sedgwick, who enters his class with a contemptuous outlook but seems to undergo a change of heart, particularly when his competitive streak is engaged by the annual Mr. Julius Caesar contest. Hundert uses class essays as preliminary rounds to determine the most knowledgeable student. He posts updates of class standings as the essays accumulate; the top three eventually meet in a final question-and-answer round while garbed in togas and witnessed by family members and the student body.
The trust that Hundert would like to place in Sedgwick is betrayed in both the past and the present. The movie is at its most eloquent when relying on Mr. Kline to express the disillusion felt by a decent and well-meaning but unwary man upon discovering that he has been played for a fool.
Despite its rather specialized context, Hundert's humiliation invites considerable sympathy. Not many movies are willing to dwell on portraits of failure, compromise and shame. The protagonist of "The Emperor's Club" is forced to admit that his pride has taken a beating, in part because he set himself up for opportunistic betrayal.
Hundert is not left a wreck of a man. The movie's good will is reflected in part by the consoling thought that this teacher hasn't mentored one bad apple after another. Quite the contrary. Sedgwick Bell is a bitter pill to swallow, but what he represents doesn't invalidate an entire career, or Hundert's highest standards and aspirations. What remains ambiguous is this man's ability to profit from the lessons of treachery, which he might be presumed to know something about in advance, given its Roman manifestations.
The character seemed alarmingly fatuous as a narrator in the original story, but Mr. Kline's on-screen presence diminishes that impression.
The empty places in Hundert's life still could use some furnishing. There are allusions to a demanding but perhaps unloving father. The aging bachelor of the story acquires a belated consort in the movie, Embeth Davidtz as a faculty wife who seems to gravitate slowly to the hero in circumstances that are never depicted. It would be easier to confuse Hundert with a new Mr. Chips if something had been done to fix him up with a plausible Mrs. Chips.

TITLE: "The Emperor's Club"
RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting profanity and sexual allusions, including brief inserts of nude magazine illustrations)
CREDITS: Directed by Michael Hoffman. Screenplay by Neil Tolkin, based on the short story "The Palace Thief" by Ethan Canin.
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

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