The emperor’s clothes
The Emperor’s Club plays it safe by rehashing the feel-good teacher story
The Emperor’s Club is based on an Ethan Canin short story, but onscreen it plays like a slightly constipated rehash of almost any feel-good teacher flick you can think of: Goodbye Mr. Chips, To Sir With Love, Dead Poets Society, etc., etc. Although it works well enough as high-toned entertainment in an elegantly understated mode, its bravest sentiments get somewhat mired in fuddy-duddy nostalgia of the old-school sort.
For all its nods toward high seriousness, this film falls a little too readily into the crowd-pleasing groove of a showpiece vehicle for its star, Kevin Kline. As the title suggests, the story is concerned with a lofty institution, an elite prep school in this case, where Kline’s character is a revered professor of classical antiquities. But director Michael Hoffman soft-pedals the spectacle of ruling class indulgences and focuses instead on the high-flown moral and pedagogical travails of Mr. Hundert (Kline).
Hundert is a passionately committed and masterful educator, and much of the film is a lyrical portrayal of his distinguished, insular and well-upholstered life and career at St. Benedict’s Academy for Boys. The crucial and rather slender thread of drama emerges via his struggles with the devilishly troublesome son of a U.S. senator. And the dramatic high points, such as they are, revolve around cheating in the school’s annual “Julius Caesar” competition.
The much-touted notion that St. Benedict’s’ students are the future leaders of American business and government nudges these intramural problems toward some semblance of social and historical significance. If Hundert is a model of classical humanist integrity, the troublesome student Sedgwick Bell is—in his student days in the mid-1970s and again at a peculiar reunion 25 years later—the upscale incarnation of modern nihilism and Machiavellian cynicism.
But even though Kline registers Hundert’s moral and professional crises with smooth efficiency, neither the film nor the character ever really breaks free of the complacencies of wealth and power in which they are immersed. While Hundert’s crises of conscience hint at a larger, harsher social critique than the story actually delivers, the strongest emotional moments in the film have mainly to do with putting his doubts, and ours, comfortably to rest.
Neil Tolkin’s screenplay adaptation lurches under the burdens of some disproportions in narrative design. At one level, it chronicles the arc of Hundert’s teaching career, but at another it is simply an ironic account of two isolated but interrelated incidents separated by 25 years. There is a satisfying symmetry in the two “Julius Caesar” incidents, but they make an unstable foundation for the film’s attempted celebration of Hundert’s career.
Kline’s performance does more justice to these mixed feelings than the film itself is able to. James Newton Howard’s gushy, overblown musical score is a prime offender on this count, particularly when it’s swamping Hundert’s private anguish in what feels like grandeur on an imperial scale. Kline’s emperor may be (metaphorically) half-naked, but the film goes on pretending that everyone is fully dressed.