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"Emperor's Club' is just too exclusive

There's a test that films about swank private schools must pass. And The Emperor's Club totally blows it.

The challenge is to engage the audience _ which is, by its nature, relatively large and democratic _ with a story about a place that is small and exclusive.

Movies that make the grade, such as Dead Poets Society and the touchingly goofy Rushmore, do so only if they never say, or even suggest, that the people who attend such institutions are better and finer than others.

But every burnished frame of The Emperor's Club carries this suggestion, and for that matter, so does the title. It's hard to shake the feeling that director Michael Hoffman (1999's A Midsummer Night's Dream), a former Rhodes scholar and Oxford University classics student, truly believes it.

Set mainly in the '70s at the posh St. Benedict's prep school, the film centers on William Hundert (Kevin Kline), assistant headmaster and beloved classics professor.

Hundert's lectures are brisk, incisive and sometimes even entertaining. What's more, he cares, really cares, about his students.

But when a freshman named Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the son of a West Virginia senator, enters Hundert's class, there is trouble in this ivy-covered paradise. Sedgewick challenges his professor's authority at every turn, often enlisting other students in his shenanigans.

It isn't that Sedgewick's activities are so terrible. We're talking about adolescent antics such as looking at girlie magazines and trying to skinny dip with the girls at the school across the lake. It's just that Hundert's methods and the sense of fun he brings to his class depend on a strong foundation of respect between him and his charges.

And respect is just not in Sedgewick's lexicon.

The plot thickens when Hundert thinks he is beginning to win over Sedgewick. With the best of intentions, but against his strictest principles, Hundert bends a rule to encourage the boy in a major school competition, a highbrow Weakest Link.

The rest of the movie becomes a sort of lecture on the importance of upholding high standards, even when sentiment might suggest relaxing them. The implication is that without its standards, which are often stated as lofty pronouncements, what would separate a place such as St. Benedict's from _ horrors! _ a public school?

The Emperor's Club sets up a false choice between people like Hundert, who are by nature too fine for the struggles of this world, and people like Sedgewick, who know how to get things done, whatever it takes.

That a bad egg such as Sedgewick can occasionally pop up at a place such as St. Benedict's only makes the case for tighter standards and stronger traditions. At least, that's what the filmmakers seem to be saying.

If The Emperor's Club is occasionally watchable, thank Kline. His performance is generally so crisp and confident that he makes his character's implicit smugness seem almost like a form of physical fitness. Only in the scenes set in the near present, when the older Hundert's rhythms are slower, does the material completely overwhelm him.

Kline is much more fortunate than Hirsch. The kid is supposed to come off as charismatic and endearingly mischievous _ most of the time, anyway. But the filmmakers so strongly disapprove of the character that he seems about as charismatic as Dennis the Menace.


The Emperor's Club

Director: Michael Hoffman

Cast: Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch

Screenplay: Neil Tolkin, based on the short story The Palace Thief by Ethan Canin

Rating: PG-13 (some sexual content)

Running time: 109 minutes

NOTE: Movies not reviewed by Times critics are not graded.