Most films about teachers usually tread one of two well-worn paths. They either focus on a battle of wills between a dedicated teacher and a recalcitrant student, with the teacher eventually winning the fight, or they chronicle the educator's reaching out to and inspiring a group of indifferent students, who learn to rise to their highest potential. While containing elements of both those scenarios, “The Emperor's Club” is different. It's a flawed but fascinating drama that never goes where you expect. It starts with retired teacher William Hundert (Kevin Kline) arriving at a former student's home and being informed that he's going to be honored with a dinner. Flash back 25 years with said student, Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch
), in Hundert's class on Greek and Roman classics. A spoiled kid, Bell doesn't give a damn about history and tests Hundert's mettle at very turn. Undeterred, Hundert reaches out to him, and soon enough Bell responds and vies for the crown of Mr. Julius Caesar, awarded to the student who can answer the most queries about Roman history. Hundert, however, is so desperate for Bell to succeed that he commits an unethical act to ensure the outcome he wants, which costs him dearly.
Uniquely, “The Emperors Club” actually gets at a truth that most films about teachers omit. It recognizes that an educator's genuine wish to touch his students can co-exist with an arrogance that can never admit failure in that regard. In Hundert's case, that hubris is also coupled with a naiveté that can't fathom that Bell might not want to play by the accepted rules of honor.
Deftly acted by Kline and Hirsch, and Joel Gretsch as the grown-up Sedgewick, “The Emperors Club,” despite a rather idealized conclusion, is a touching movie about a man who cares too much. Unusually for Hollywood, it raises questions that don't have easy answers.
Starring Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch and Embeth Davidtz. Directed by Michael Hoffman. Written by Neil Tolkin. Produced by Andrew Karsch and Marc Abraham. A Universal release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content. Running time: 109 min. Opens 11/22.