Kevin Kline is one of these actors who's talent I thought was quite limited. He's been in good films but in every one that I saw, he always played overacting buffoons, eg. A Fish called Wanda, Fierce Creatures, Wild Wild West, French Kiss. His 'idiot' performances were likeable, but that seemed to be all that his acting range was composed of. Playing a tit. However, in this role as William Hundert, a classics teacher in an American Prep School, he excels, his acting range is quite splendid in it's depth and subtlety. He plays a noble, gentle man that is passionate about teaching and also believes in instilling in his students a sense of honour and integrity. He is well respected and his methods are successful until the arrival of a new student, Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hersh), a senator's son, threatens to undermine all that he stands for. Bell has a negative effect on the students, and Hundert has to maintain order while trying to reach out to the troubled young man.
Taking part in the school's 'Julius Caesar' history competition is a goal that many of Hundert's pupils aspire to, and he has to decide who get the top places in class to qualify. This is where the film's main narrative drive comes from, and where we see the kind of flawed but decent man Hundert is. We identify with his sense of outrage and his disappointment in people's obsession with fame, greed and to be top dog at any cost. The story unfolds primarily in the seventies and is bookended by scenes set in the present day (the ageing make up used is realistic and natural looking, not often the case in films like this). Different actors play the pupils when mature and everyone involved, both old and young, act very well. There's no ropey acting in the whole film. Director Michael Hoffman guides the cast with an assured hand and the film is beautifully photographed. Much of what we see regarding an inspirational teacher and troubled pupils has been covered before in films like 'Dead Poets Society', but The Emperor's Club has it's own identity and is a less mawkish affair, while still retaining a life-affirming, feel good factor. The script though conventional has substance, with all the characters fleshed out, behaving in a realistic manner. About two thirds through, I thought that the film had began to meander, and it was time to wrap it up as it was lapsing into an overly sentimental 'schmaltz-fest'. But it then changed direction and by skipping the story forward to the present day, it showed how a small misjudgement, or sin, for want of a better word, could have immense ramifications twenty-five years later. It ends in a very poignant and resonant way. Excellent film.
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