Like its predecessors in this genre, including Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dead Poets Society and Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Emperor’s Club features a well-liked teacher, in this case Mr. Hundert, with a great passion for his job who shapes and molds his students into fine young men over the many years of his career. The film focuses on Hundert’s relationship with a new transfer student, Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch) who joins the class of 1976 at St. Benedict’s and manages to test the patience of the experienced Mr. Hundert with his rebellious antics. However, in spite of Sedgewick’s pranks, contempt for authority and general raucousness, Hundert attempts to cultivate in his student the love for learning he so champions.
Both Kline and Hirsch deliver commendable performances as teacher and student engaging in a fierce battle of wills. In particular Kline, perhaps most noted for his academy award-winning work in the comedy A Fish Called Wanda, here portrays with equal effectiveness a strikingly different character. Indeed, as a dignified, proper, yet incredibly passionate teacher, Kline gives a performance that truly inspires. Particularly memorable is the scene when Mr. Hundert confronts a grown-up Sedgewick in a tense encounter punctuated by an unparalleled depth of emotion subtly present in Kline’s voice and manner. Indeed, this is sure to be remembered as one of his most outstanding performances.
Hoffman’s direction is similarly well-done. His shots of the grand St. Benedict’s Academy are beautifully composed as he effectively uses different settings to tailor the mood for specific exchanges and dialogs. Unfortunately, these positive aspects of the film are not enough to compensate for the serious flaws in the script. The Emperor’s Club does little to distinguish itself from any other “great teacher” movie, largely because the story focuses excessively on the relationship between Sedgewick and Hundert without ever really probing into each of their personal lives outside of the classroom.
For example, both Mr. Hundert and Sedgewick grew up under the shadows of their fathers, but instead of exploring this diametrically opposing setup, the movie essentially ignores it. The love between Hundert and his colleague Elizabeth (Embeth Davidtz) is also completely undeveloped, leaving the audience feeling puzzled and unsatisfied as the plot progresses. Films of a similar type such as Mr. Holland’s Opus were, in contrast, successful precisely because they explored the personal trials and tribulations of their protagonists beyond the classroom.
The ending of the movie is what saves it from utter banality, but it is far from enough to compensate for the earlier flaws in the script. These diminish the brilliance of the few shining moments of the film, resulting in a work that isn’t entirely bad, but doesn’t exactly make the grade, either.
THE EMPEROR’S CLUB
Starring Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch
Directed by Michael Hoffman