“The Emperor’s Club” is a rather stodgily directed pic by Michael Hoffman which extols the virtues of Greek and Roman thinking in the guise of Kevin Kline’s classics teacher. Pic, which tends to wear its virtu on its sleeve, will receive good if not enthralled support from more high-minded general auds, but nowhere near the B.O. level of the more emotional “Dead Poets Society.”
Kline’s William Hundert, like the film, is guided by the maxim of the great Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “A man’s character is his fate.” If Neil Tolkin’s screenplay, based on Ethan Canin’s short story “The Palace Thief” (pic’s original title), has a singular strength, it’s a determination to stick closely to its Heraclitian premise and the motto of the extremely tweedy East Coast-based boarding school at which Hundert taught: “The end depends upon the beginning.”
Prelude starts in the present, as Hundert, a retired 34-year-vet at St. Benedict’s Academy for Boys, is winged to a palatial estate as a guest. His rather dry v.o. narration quickly shifts action back to 1976, at the start of a new semester where he impresses on his class that “conquest without contribution is without significance.” Hundert also serves as a kind of dorm house mother to the lads, including the slightly unruly types, like Louis Masoudi (Jesse Eisenberg), and the diligent scholars typified by Deepak Mehta (Rishi Mehta).
All goes well until Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the cocky son of a U.S. senator, drops into the academy and instantly sets off waves. From papering the walls of his room with posters from Godard’s “Breathless” and “Contempt” to dissing Shakespeare’s Brutus as “a pussy” to nearly seducing the pleated skirts right off a bunch of neighboring private school girls, Bell practically has “Bad Boy” tattooed on his forehead. And with Hirsch’s long-locked good looks — he’s more alluring than he was as a similar naughty schoolboy character in “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys” — a link to Malcolm McDowell’s rebel student in Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 pic “If” is unmistakable.
But all of this runs against the movie’s agenda, which is to show that the deep flaws in young Bell’s character carry into manhood, when he becomes a powerful corporate leader and a U.S. Senate candidate. Pic establishes that St. Benedict’s pushes young classicists toward excellence with its Mr. Julius Caesar contest, involving weeks of essay tests and a pop-question runoff between the top three scorers. Hundert initially gives Bell an extra push and even some questionable fudging of the final scoring, allowing Bell to land a spot in the contest finals, but the teacher is burned by Bell cheating his way through the runoff.
As helmer Hoffman virtually plods his way through the film, he can’t summon enough dramatic energy to raise the final revelations and confrontations above the level of simple platitudes. This tends to cut into the full effect of Kline’s role, although it fits like a glove. What remains the actor’s own are an assured sense of timing, balanced with a marvelous range of everything from small-scaled reactions to facial sea changes perfectly pitched to the camera. Thesp is a study in details, from the way he walks crisply in his well-pressed regulation school suit to the delicate manner he writes, calligraphy style, even on the chalkboard.
Dark-eyed Hirsch is a striking contrast, if only on surface. Besides a young McDowell, there’s a hint of early Leonardo DiCaprio lurking in the thesp, who now needs to try his acting out of school.
Hirsch easily overshadows his fellow classmates, as Kline does his adult peers, such as Embeth Davidtz as a teacher at the academy who has a soft spot for her colleague. As Bell’s LBJ-like senator dad, Harris Yulin needs only one scene to leave an indelible mark, while Rob Morrow nicely conceals a political operator behind his glad-handing Latin teacher.
Pic declines starkly in final section, not only because a present-day replay of the Julius Caesar finals is as bland as the Stanley Kramer-like message, but because the majority of casting of older thesps doesn’t jibe physically with their younger selves. It’s just as hard in the end to take seriously a description of the confab as a meeting of “the captains of industry.”
Production is distinguished by a regal display of upper-crust East Coast locales –many West Coasters will almost feel this is more England than Stateside. Still, filming in nearly consistently sunny weather fails to bring out the passage of the seasons as a natural cinematic motif in what is a visually dull pic. Most elements, from Lajos Koltai’s lensing to James Newton Howard’s score, are pro, but uninspired.