review for The Emperor's Club on AllMovie

The Emperor's Club (2002)
by Todd Kristel review

For the first hour or thereabouts, this is a formulaic movie that seems like it was cut and pasted from other films such as Dead Poets Society. The performances are generally sound: Kevin Kline is convincingly earnest as the idealistic teacher William Hundert, Emile Hirsch demonstrates a strong command of body language in his role as the rebellious student Sedgewick Bell, Harris Yulin excels in his role as Bell's non-idealistic senator father (although it's unfortunate that he only has one big scene with Kline), and the rest of the cast is generally fine. But Hundert and his students seem more like movie clichés than fully developed individuals. The filmmakers don't really try to get inside their heads or to differentiate them from characters we've seen in similar movies; also, most of the scenes are both predictable and lifeless. Fortunately, the plot takes a somewhat unexpected turn in the middle that offers the possibility of a deeper and more interesting story; unfortunately, the film never fully delivers on this promise. Instead of providing the audience with the opportunity to make their own judgments about the ethical issues raised in the story, the film spells out and simplifies every issue. Also, the filmmakers seem so intent on giving this movie a pleasant, feel-good sheen that they undermine the dark, provocative elements of the story even as they're unfolding on the screen. Indeed, the filmmakers pretty much negate the whole point of the story by burying it beneath layers of sentimentality and James Newton Howard's overbearing score. Kline does deserve credit for giving a relatively reserved performance that fits his character instead of chewing too much scenery; however, his character is so stodgy, sanctimonious, and bland that it is hard to warm up to him.