Reviewed by: Ken James
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.
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.
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…