A review of “The Emperor's Club” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG-13 for mild profanity

Run Time: 1 hour, 49 minutes

 

 

“A man’s character is his fate”.  That eloquent statement, uttered in silver-tongued voice-over by erudite classics professor William Hundert (Kevin Kline), begins a pedantic journey that ultimately manages to transcend its saccharine side.

“Dead Poet’s Society” meets “Mr. Holland’s Opus” as the lads of St. Benedict’s School for Boys are lead along the path of virtue and integrity by the popular and idealistic Hundert.  Hundert’s passion for the Greeks and Romans transforms his students into scholars, until the disruptive arrival of troublemaker Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the misguided scion of a powerful senator.

Accustomed to reaching out and touching his students, Hundert is dismayed by his failure to get through to the indifferent Bell, a first-class hellion.  But when he abruptly reverses his tactics to include positive reinforcement, Hundert is encouraged by the results.  Bell comes “out of the dark and into the light” academically and appears to embrace his potential, working his way up the ranks of finalists for the school’s illustrious Julius Caesar competition.

Flash forward twenty five years.  Hundert has been summoned for an informal class reunion by the grown (and wildly successful) Bell, in an effort by Bell to recoup his intellectual face. But what goes around comes around, and the tricky hands of fate intervene to revisit a spectacular fall from grace.

A delicate balance of nostalgia and contemporary themes win out over scripting pregnant with cinematic schmaltz. Hirsch and his young co-stars lend an adolescent charm to the proceedings, but Kline’s extraordinary performance is the linchpin - subtly hinting at unrequited passion, an unhappy childhood, and an overwhelming desire to advocate honor in the face of human shortcomings.  Unexpected twists of fate earmark “Emperor’s” as a family film to be reckoned with.