The Emperor's Club
review by Dan Lybarger, 22 November 2002

The makers of The Emperor's Club can't be faulted for taking the task of adapting Ethan Canin's short story The Palace Thief lightly. They've recruited a formidable cast and deserve some praise for trying to tackle moral dilemmas. It's also refreshing to see a film that lauds erudition instead of mocking it. Still, The Emperor's Club frequently drones on like a stodgy lecturer whose passion for a subject never trickles down to the students. Feeling longer than its actual 109 minutes, the movie might have benefited from emphasizing its characters over platitudes.

In some ways these priorities are fitting because The Emperor's Club centers on William Hundert (Kevin Kline, My Life as a House), a Western Civilization teacher who can make previously indifferent teenage boys care about the reigns of long dead Roman emperors. His blend of fussiness and compassion wins over all of the lads in his class at the prestigious St. Benedict's school except for one. Sedgewick Bell (played with appropriate swagger by Emile Hirsch from The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) is the son of a West Virginia senator and a disruptive brat. When he isn't trying to make up for his lack of studying by tossing off rude wisecracks, Sedgewick is leading the rest of the lads into antics that could get them expelled.

Fortunately, there's the annual St. Benedict's "Mr. Julius Caesar" competition, where the boys try to outdo each other in how well they remember Roman history. Sedgewick demonstrates a curiously unprecedented aptitude, and Mr. Hundert takes unusual steps to encourage his student. He secretly alters grades to keep Sedgewick on the straight and narrow. Mr. Hundert learns to regret his decision when Sedgewick's newfound initiative proves to be less than genuine. It takes The Emperor's Club an inordinate amount of time to get to this point, and much of what follows seems a bit anticlimactic.

Many times screenwriters toil to strip down a work of fiction to where it fits comfortably into two hours. With The Palace Thief, director Michael Hoffman (One Fine Day) and screenwriter Neil Tolkin (the author of such august fare as Jury Duty and Richie Rich) have to augment Canin's short, internal narrative filmable.  Their additions bring little to the story and often slow down its more potent aspects. In the movie but not in the story, Mr. Hundert pines after a colleague's wife (Embeth Davidtz), but decorum and his own standards prevent him from acting on his longings. All the scenes that Kline and Davidtz share do little but remind the audience that Hundert isn't gay. Similarly, the sequence where the lads discover a girl's school literally across the pond kills time instead of maximizing it.

Hoffman and Tolkin kept none of the subtleties of the short story. With the subject matter in Hundert's classroom might lead both the teacher and the pupils to speak as if they were reciting Socratic dialogs, The Emperor's Club would have been more satisfying if Hoffman had allowed Kline to explore Mr. Hundert through the character's actions instead of constant pontification and a dull voiceover that occasionally borrows from Canin's prose. Without the embellishments, the final reunion between Mr. Hundert and his now-grown students would have been more involving. Instead, it looks as artificial and obvious as Kline's old-age makeup.

Directed by:
Michael Hoffman

Starring:
Kevin Kline
Emile Hirsch
Embeth Davidtz

Written by:
Neil Tolkin

Rating:
PG - Parental
Guidance Suggested.
Some material may
not be appropriate
for children
.

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