The Emperor’s Club could have easily been titled Dead Roman’s Club had its makers wanted to be a little more accurate. (After all, the film’s bland title had already been altered from that of the short story on which it’s based, Ethan Canin’s The Palace Thief.) Kevin Kline, coming off of a heartfelt, generous performance in last year’s undervalued Life as a House, goes even deeper into dead-serious dramatic mode as Professor William Hundert, a venerated teacher of Roman history at a high-end prep school called St. Benedict’s. He attempts to arouse his students to greatness by offering them parallels between ancient Roman society and our own. But Hundert is not the kind of teacher who inspires his students toward individualism with energy and personality, the tools equipped by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society; instead he inspires them toward a sedate, scholarly traditionalism by chipping away ever so slowly at their youthful zeal with his respectable yet staunchly indefatigable blandness. His main adversary is a firebrand named Sedgwick Bell (Emile Hirsch, far less persuasive than in his previous schoolboy role in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys), the spoiled son of a U.S. senator who stirs things up in class with pranks and ill-timed vulgarities. Hundert’s personal mission is to induce Sedgwick to forgo the childish mischief and apply himself to his studies, but at what price? The virtuous professor, who allows himself an ethical lapse by fudging a test score in the hopes that it will pave the way for Sedgwick’s redemption, eventually learns that his actions may have encouraged the boy’s complete moral collapse.
The filmmakers seemingly swear by Hundert’s axiom that one’s fate is subservient to the history of one’s choices. Therefore, it’s difficult to determine if the film suggests that Sedgwick’s ultimate immorality is born from the professor’s naïve optimism, a notion that would seemingly refute those principles. Since Sedgwick is the kind of kid who lazily lobs his baseball at the wall or looks at nudie mags while others are off studying, it’s obvious that he’s a generic bad seed from the start. So did Hundert truly fail him, or was there no chance that Hundert would make a difference to begin with? If the latter is true, then why should Hundert still take credit for all of the students who allegedly followed his principled teachings—they’d have turned out to be the bland, successful businessmen we see at the end of the film with or without his guidance. It’s clear that The Emperor’s Club still has some intricate issues to be worked out, perhaps the reason we ultimately care less about its moral ponderings and more about why Hundert comes across as such a bore. It’s refreshing to see a character openly choose integrity without being overly sanctimonious, but there’s little to Hundert beyond his code of honor, making him less of a person and more of a memorandum to the film’s audience. The crux of The Emperor’s Club is that Hundert is fully aware of, and at peace with, his own limitations. Understanding that he can only suggest a righteous path and not force it down anyone’s throat, or realizing that he’ll always be a person who motivates significance instead of creating it himself, he is content to believe he has made some kind of impact in the lives of others. The Emperor’s Club is equally content to be a middling exercise in the sub-genre of inspirational educator movies. By film’s end, Hundert may be remembered by his pupils but the movie will be quickly forgotten.