Prayer Focus
Movie Review

The Emperor's Club

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language and sexuality

Reviewed by: Ken James

Better than Average
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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Teens Adults
1 hr. 49 min.
Year of Release:

Starring: Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch, Embeth Davidtz, Joel Gretsch, Rob Morrow | Directed by: Michael Hoffman | Produced by: Andrew Karsch, Marc Abraham | Written by: Neil Tolkin | Distributor: Universal Pictures

What do Enron, Martha Stuart, Worldcom, and Bill Clinton (or just about any political figure) have in common? No, it’s not the latest crude joke (at least, not to my knowledge). It’s just a simple observation of our culture: we’ve got a major problem with ethics and integrity.

It’s easy to blame others, so let’s get closer to home. Did you know that 91 out of 100 of you reading this right now lies on a regular basis? 18 of you 91 lie daily. 64% will “lie when it suits me, so long as it doesn’t cause any real damage.” 30% of adults will cheat on their taxes. [Source: The Day America Told the Truth, James Patterson, Peter Kim]

The Emperor’s Club couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. Starring the masterful Kevin Kline as William Hundert, a dedicated teacher of the Classics at St. Benedict’s preparatory boys school, we have here a story that spans a quarter of a century. Though it can be likened to “Dead Poets Society” only in that it takes place at an elite boarding school, it is a total contrast in the overall message. Whereas the Latin phrase “Carpe Diem” became commonplace after the 1989 feature, The Emperor’s Club reminds its viewer that it’s not just one mistake that determines our future. In most cases, it is rather a series of continual choices made over time that molds and makes the man.

Students from St. Benedict’s prep school in “The Emperrors Club”In this case, that man is Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch, “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys”), a bright and privileged Senator’s son who finds acting out the part of class clown and rule breaker more attractive than attentive student. While Emile (pronounced Em-eel) may be relatively unknown, it is certain he’ll find plenty of roles after his excellent performance in The Emperor’s Club. Going toe-to-toe with the Academy Award Winning Kline, Emile and his character Sedgewick couldn’t be more opposite. Emile says “let’s see, we’re both human, but other than that, I don’t think there’s any relationship to him for me! But I do think anyone can kind of relate to him not wanting to lose. No one wants to lose. It’s just how certain people handle it. He handles it in a way of someone that can’t lose and won’t lose.” His character is willing to win at any cost. This story breaks the myth that cheaters don’t win. Sometimes it seems that they DO win, DO get ahead. (Ever read the Psalms?) Yet at what cost to their soul… or to others mowed down in the process?

When Sedgewick enters the school, the other students are immediately drawn to his magnetic personality. It’s in part exactly that magnetism that makes Mr. Hundert know he must confront Sedgewick’s rudeness and lack of respect for any authority. During the semester Hundert offers a bit of a truce and the two develop a mutual respect. Though Hundert is a man of ethics and morality, he finds himself breaking some of those rules here and there for Sedgewick. A generation later, Mr. Hundert, Sedgewick and his former classmates gather for a reunion… but it’s an uncomfortable one at best. Has Sedgewick changed for the better in the past 25 years? Mr. Hundert comes to face the generation-old choices he has been haunted by.

If you think you can already guess how it ends, with the teacher redeeming the student or vice versa, you’d be wrong. One of the interesting things about this story (based on the short story by Ethan Canin entitled “The Palace Thief”) is that there is no redemptiveness. There is no preaching. The Emperor’s Club simply raises questions about situational ethics, morality, and right and wrong. It’s the perfect film for teachers, students, and parents who wish to start discussions that can influence one another for good.

Cast and Crew Interviews. Click here.

Wanna know more about this film? Read our interviews with actors Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch, Rob Morrow; Director Michael Hoffman and Producer Marc Abraham; and writers Neil Tolkin and Ethan Canin

Shot for a mere $14 million (mere by industry standards) The Emperor’s Club is a marvelous piece. Each of the cast and crew members I spoke with talked of the passion that brought everyone together to help see this project to completion. It’s that kind of passion that can be felt here. It’s technically terrific, with strong acting from each of the characters. Kline is famous for saying it all with his eyes, and here we find no exception. There are a few instances of foul language (mostly coming from Sedgewick’s Senator father, and later from an adult Sedgewick). There is also a scene in the first 20 minutes that shows some of the contraband that Sedgewick brings to school, including a girlie mag with a topless woman on it. Keeping in mind the MPAA rating (PG-13), I find The Emperor’s Club a strong pick with something to offer for those of any age over 13. My recommendation is that audiences mix it up a bit so that young and older can view the film together with a point of discussing it afterwards. A film like this isn’t for mere entertainment only…

Viewer Comments
Comments below:
Positive—“The Emperor’s Club” takes the world of a boy’s school and portrays it like the great stories of the Bible. A battle of the wills, a moral dilemma that characters agonize over, a deep longing to connect with a hurting person, and moral outrage at evil. This movie has it all, and no character comes away unscathed. It will be tough to sort out the white hats from the black hats until the end of the movie, which gives a clear rendition of a psychopath. My only objection was that the school, St. Benedictus, obviously a Christian school in origin, has no Christian basis for morality at all, only Greek and Roman values. Otherwise a real gem. It motivates me to read Ethan Canin’s writing.
My Ratings: [Excellent! / 4]
—Mark Williams, age 45
Positive—I thought it was a thought provoking movie. I like to look beneath the surface. Partly because I thought it would cause people, particularly students, to think before they cheat on a test, etc. It seems to be epidemic these days. I liked the way Hundert challenged Sedgewick when he first encountered him in the classroom. It was like “this is my classroom and you are not going to disturb it.” I think Hundert actually admired Sedgewick because of his individuality, and yet felt sorry for him because of his dad, so he wanted to give him a chance to shine.

That is why he changed his grade. This is a type of “rescuing” and we see it happen all the time. They don’t have to experience consequences for their actions. But we, the viewer, gets to see the consequences of even that kind of thinking in this movie. Hundert said “I failed him as a teacher.” He didn’t show him the character he needed to show him. If he had challenged him in the contest at the time it happened, perhaps the outcome would have been different.

It fails in character from the headmaster as well. He seemed to be interested only in the money Sedgewick’s dad could give to the school. It’s become too acceptable, so who is going to stand up and be HONEST? The redeeming value in the film is that we get to see how these character flaws affect our society in the end.
My Ratings: [Average / 4]
—Joyce Brown, age 55
Positive—…conscience prevails… those seeing this film will relate to it. I loved it. It was well acted, moving and engrossing. I give it 4 stars.
My Ratings: [Average / 4]
—Patricia Whatley, age 65
Positive—As a parent of two teenagers, I’m constantly perusing film reviews for quality prospects. This film has several good lessons to share. Even though the film’s theme of character and integrity is demonstrated predominantly through the relationship of teacher and student, the subplots (e.g. Hundert’s carefully restrained relationship with a married female colleague; and the easily compromised comradery of the four central students) also provide their own lessons. As an alumnus of both private/parochial and public school, an obvious, yet, unaddressed problem is premature institutionalization. It only takes one bad apple to spoil the barrel (no matter where the barrel). Children are impressionable and their characters molded by those with whom they spend the most time. If you want to mold your child’s character, then, perhaps, we should all take a lesson from Kevin Kline’s real-life celebrity wife: stay home and raise them ourselves.
My Ratings: [Good / 4]
—Curt Batson, age 54
Positive—When my friends and I first entered the theatre, we were a little embarrassed to find ourselves to be the only teenagers there, but we all walked out thoroughly impressed by this movie. As mentioned by others, the previews for this film (and the film itself) reminded me of “The Dead Poet Society.” However, this movie has a “lighter” feel and was not as depressing. I enjoyed the unexpected twist at the end which helped to underline the message that a single mistake can have life-long consequences. But I also liked another lesson the film taught, that one mistake/failure doesn’t define your life if you don’t let it. The film’s major flaw is that it was trying too hard to be a “Best Picture” when I don’t think it is of that calibur. Otherwise, this was a very enjoyable movie and I would highly recommend it to those looking for an alternative to teen-marketed action and romance flicks. A word of warning: though there isn’t too much focus on it, there is some detail seen in the playboy magazines that the boys look at near the beginning of the film.
My Ratings: [Better than Average / 4]
—Kim, age 19
Positive—“The Emperor’s Club” is a clear message for a world in search of moral answers to the complex problems we face. When completed by living with a faith in God, it is a message that could change the future as we build on the lessons of the past.

DISCUSSION: 1. In a day when ethics are lacking in so many political leaders we’ve experienced the damaging impacts. Discuss what the effects are if a senator, like Bell, has no moral commitment. What will this do to the Senate? What will this do to the people in his state? What will this do to his son? How can we tell whether the rhetoric is just a spin to get elected or a true, life commitment?

2. The temptation to help those who need help often pulls us to step on those who are doing well. Discuss how the decision of Mr. Hundert to help Sedgewick could have been done without stepping on Martin Blythe (Paul Franklin). Explore how Martin bringing his son to Mr. Hundert’s class was an act of forgiveness and trust. Discuss whether this was an even more empowering experience for both Martin and Mr. Hundert as they faced the betrayal which occurred years earlier.

3. Set within a Christian prep school of St. Benedict’s, discuss why you think Jesus and his ethical teachings of the Sermon on the Mount were not mentioned. Why were the Greeks and their culture the identity of the ethical teaching of the film? What would have been different if Jesus had been the focus of Mr. Hundert’s teaching on character?

4.Was it unjust of the board to not make Mr. Hundert head of the school? Was such a promotion a match for his gifts and interests? Is longevity the best or primary ingredient for advancement?
—Denny and Hal,
Positive—I agree with your review. While waiting in line I heard someone suggest that the previews for “The Emperor’s Club” reminded her of “Dead Poets Society.” Both movies open doors for reflection and discussion. But, “The Emperor’s Club” focuses on ethics and integrity. And, rather than glorifying living for the moment, “The Emperor’s Club” points out to us that the choices we make on a daily, hourly, and even on a minute-by-minute basis, affects our lives (and others’) now and in the future. It is disappointing and heartbreaking when those we try to help get on the “narrow road” are in love with the wide road leading to their own destruction.

At some point we must give them over to God in prayer and focus our energy on those who are willing to be molded into people of integrity. Sedgewick Bell, the boy who became the successful executive, seemed proud of his lack of scruples. Someday we will all have to look at ourselves as God sees us. Oftentimes the innocence of a child who looks up to us will cause us to reflect and realize we are not worthy of their respect. And, I pray this will lead to repentance and new life.
My Ratings: [Better than Average / 4½]
—Susan, age 35
Positive—I highly recommend the film “The Emperor’s Club.” It is one of those rare cinematic moments where the viewers can briefly touch the lost soul of Hollywood and maybe our culture. I taught public school for five years as an Instructional Assistant in charge of In School Suspension and as a substitute teacher. I also worked as a tutor in the Educational Talent Search program. This program identified students in the 5th grade that might require assistance to complete high school. I have taught students like Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch). The ones that seem to have so much promise, but apply all their mental energy to the disruption of their world. My life theme for students has always been “education gives you the opportunity to do what you want.” It is so easy to find yourself as a teacher in the shoes of William Hundert (Kevin Kline). Nearly every teacher would like to see students be successful lifelong learners. The problem is that in the film you see how parents can influence, for the most part, how that “die is cast.”

This point is revealed in the third act of the movie. Kevin Kline does an outstanding job with most of the heavy lifting in this story. Many critics have compared this film to “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” I would contrast it with Tom Hanks role in “The Castaway.”

Mr. Kline’s character is symbolically stranded on an island containing the ideas of truth and integrity. These are the values that we long to see in politics and business, but we are losing ground Our media is so starved to sniff out the latest scandal, while many silent unnoticed heroes enrich our lives every day. It is most unfortunate that this film has been a holiday release. I hope that it will get some well deserved “Oscar” buzz. The cold hard facts are that it will be eclipsed by Harry Potter and “The Lord of the Rings.”

Even the Hollywood press junket coverage slighted this film and its potential influence is already fading. “Hot Ticket” (for example) left this film off of their weekend review and focused instead on George Clooney’s upcoming release and a special on movies with shocking sexual material. That should not stop you from creating your own “buzz”—I know I will!
—Douglas M. Downs
Neutral—Just one thing that was not mentioned in the write up on the movie that I had a problem with, was the emotional affair that Mr. Hundart was having with that married woman…
My Ratings: [Better than Average / 4]
—Glen Maillet, age 33
Comments from young people
Positive—I am 13 years old, and I live in Boise, Idaho, and go to school with Michael Hoffman’s children. I know Michael very well, and I trust him to make something great to all people’s standards. This film is amazing. You laugh, you cry, you want to help people. I was a bit nervous about going to this at first because usually I don’t like PG-13 movies, but this was amazing. Please see it. It really puts your heart in the right place.
My Ratings: [Good / 5]
—Rebecca, age 13