By: Min Qiao <email@example.com>
At some point in our lives, all of us have been faced with ethical dilemmas where we have to choose between doing the right thing and compromising our morals to gain the upper hand. “Emperor’s Club” is a movie based on Ethan Canin’s short story “The Palace Thief” that conveys the conflict between the ideal and the reality.
This movie begins in the early 1970s at a fictional private high school, Saint Benedict’s Academy, where William Hundert (Kevin Kline), a passionate and principled classics professor, not only teaches about Ancient Western Civilization but also strives to instill a moral sense of responsibility in his students. However, Hundert’s clear ethical lines of right and wrong are smudged with the arrival of Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the rebellious and arrogant son of a senior senator. Compelled by a responsibility to help the troubled boy, Hundert compromises his own moral values to secure Bell a spot as one of the top three finalists in the annual Julius Caesar competition.
At first, “Emperor’s Club” seems like just another average film among the pool of movies including “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Dead Poet’s Society” that tells a tale of the latest reincarnation of the world’s best teacher. Like all the other movies, “Emperor’s Club” shows us the positive impact a teacher can have on his students. But the more intriguing story is a tragedy that studies the subtle but long-lasting impact of the teacher’s single moral lapse and the effect it has on the ethical development of his student. At the core of this movie is a crucial message, and that is to live a life of virtue and responsibility, regardless of how much one can gain by lying and cheating.
Hirsch, one of the most talented rising stars, does an excellent job of making young Bell appear to be charming and likable to the fictional characters while clearly revealed as conceited and devious to the audience. Hirsch’s portrayal of Bell is believable and gives the audience a genuine impression that Bell is a modern-day Machiavellian genius.
Similarly, Kline gives a convincing and deeply appealing performance as Hundert, the noble teacher who struggles to keep to his strict moral code and is ultimately a flawed character because of his lapse in judgement. Kline’s subtle performance makes Hundert a complex and layered character. One of the most revealing moments in the movie is during the Julius Caesar rematch when Hundert realizes that Bell has cheated, once again in an attempt to come out on top. The scene becomes even more poignant when Hundert confronts Bell, who responds with “Who gives a s***?”. Kline has outdone himself again and does a fabulous job of conveying the internal turmoil Hundert feels when he realizes the key role he played in molding Bell into the beguiling tactician that his student has become.
Although, the ending of this movie is unexpected, setting it apart from all the other “great-teacher” movies, the story leading up to it was, frankly, too predictable. The dreary romantic subplot between Hundert and Elizabeth (Embeth Davidtz) is completely out of place and does nothing but detract from the main theme of the story. The parallelism presented in the two different time periods was just a bit too much foreshadowing that only contributed to the predictability of this film.
Overall, I would give this movie a B+ given that the plot was not the most original but the excellent performances by all of the actors really gave this film its uniqueness. Perhaps most important is the portrayal of a conflict that all of us can relate to. While most of us would like to be the William Hunderts of the world, the fact of the matter is that we may be more like Sedgewick Bell. It is a constant internal battle that we all face every day and this movie really shows that even the best of us have moral lapses.