What is the life of a teacher? Outside of peripheral things like research and writings, is it just year after year of shoveling kids in and out of the system, hitting the same material over and over again? On the surface, this is the question that The Emperor's Club is answering.
Kevin Kline is William Hundert, assistant headmaster at Saint Benedictus School for Boys, and we follow one of his classes of Western Civilization for what turns out to be an extended period of time. This class is particularly interested in the Greeks and Romans, and features a "Mr. Julius Caesar" contest that test the knowledge of the class on the Roman Emperors - this is where the title of the film comes from, though the "Club" portion of it is pulled from thin air: it's a workable title, but not an exact match for the content.
At first, the film seems like your usual boarding school bit, in the vein of Dead Poets Society, but crossed with a juvenile delinquent movie. Sedgewick Bell, son of a senator, is added to the class after the semester has started. Right away, he is a distraction with no apparent interest in the school's proud tradition of scholarship. After a few run-ins, Hundert undertakes a visit to Senator Bell, after which young Sedgewick has an awakened interest in his performance in the school. His efforts result in his admission to the vaunted final threesome to participate in the endgame of the Mr. Julius Caesar contest.
It is around this point (actually, just a little before) that the movie finds its focus and starts fleshing out its major themes. And those themes are important here, not so much because the plot is lacking, but because it actually gives the plot a kind of depth we don't see that often. We ride these themes to a rousing and well thought out conclusion - a true culmination of the themes that have been built.
If it's not clear yet, my main problem is with the front part of the film. Like another, somewhat lesser accessible film In The Bedroom, we have to spend a lot of time giving the proper background in order for the story to work. For The Emperor's Club, we can put some of the blame on the need for a slower, carefully paced plot, but there are other issues. First of all, we use a framing device of moving back from "present time" at the start of the film. The culmination of the film in the present is superbly achieved, but no reason is given as to why we had to start in the present. At best, they wanted the audience to be wondering about something through the movie. I just feel like this choice actually removed some of the energy of the movie by removing us from the concerns of what was happening in the past. As for the rest of the beginning, I was at times thinking the movie centered too much on Hundert, that even maybe it should have been about Sedgewick and his father, the Senator. There is a bit of conflict between the students finding their character and keeping Hundert on screen - it's a perfectly valid goal for the filmmakers, but the implementation was weak. A better choice could have been to let Hundert have a chance to be more of an observer of this character-finding behavior. As it is, the film simply throws out too many differing hints at to what kind of movie it will be before it finally finds itself.
But once it does find itself, I am in awe of this film. These themes of contribution, principles, and morality are woven together perfectly in the last half. I wish there were more films with the bravura to tackle on something more significant than teens trying to get laid. It's that darn supply-and-demand thing, though. I'm not a boarding school sort of person, but if such an education lends folk to watch a more serious kind of movie like this, I'm all for it.
Kevin Kline is a wonder in this role. Hundert is a very internal sort of person, with very exact standards of behavior, which requires a subtle performance. Kline delivers admirably and is deserving of being considered in the top tier of actors working today. Is this role potentially an Oscar winner? I feel it's somewhat borderline at this point - depends on what the competition ends up being. I'd see him left on the sidelines in a strong year, but I wouldn't mind another crack at the film before saying that with confidence. My issues with the film may have interfered with my appreciation of his performance. And what about the fact that In The Bedroom did so well at the Oscars, even though I felt it had issues very similar to this film's. I don't think I'm going to jump into the professional prediction-mongers pit just yet.
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