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Would it be revealing too much to note that The Emperor’s Club could be subtitled The George W. Bush Story? This blandly competent prep-school parable, adapted from a short story by Ethan Canin, is dramatically thin but thematically timely. “A man’s character is his fate,” announces the film’s protagonist, classics teacher William Hundert, in the opening scene. Yet Hundert (Kevin Kline on smoothly purring autopilot) is about to learn that some men with no character do very well for themselves. The bulk of this ceremonially paced tale transpires in the mid ’70s, 25 years before Hundert makes his final unsettling discovery. Teaching at upscale, traditional St. Benedict’s School for Boys, the chipper classicist promulgates his brand of “Western Civilization,” which seems to be mostly names and dates from Roman history, supplemented by occasional sententious epigrams from the Greeks. (That character-equals-fate bit is a bad translation of one of Heraclitus’ fragments.) Hundert’s course must be at the center of the school’s curriculum, because the year’s biggest event is the long-standing Mr. Julius Caesar contest, a Roman-trivia match that Hundert moderates. But the Greco-Roman lovefest is soon disrupted by a new student, Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys’ pretty young thing), the son of a U.S. senator whose office Hundert eventually visits. Sedgewick is more interested in skin mags than Loeb Classics, and he briefly becomes a bad influence on the leading contenders for Mr. Julius Caesar—before, of course, Hundert dedicates himself to saving the student’s academic career and appears to succeed. The teacher, however, has some big disappointments awaiting him. Quiet disillusionment is as much drama as director Michael (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) Hoffman allows. Although the movie’s ad campaign seeks to conjure Dead Poets Society, The Emperor’s Club has no suicides, no expulsions, no firings, and only one lukewarm principled resignation. “This is a story without surprises,” Hundert intones, and that’s accurate. Even viewers who identify Sedgewick with another politician’s son won’t exactly be stunned. For those who voted Democratic
earlier this month, though, Hundert’s ineffectual decency just might be poignant.—Mark Jenkins