The Emperor's Club

It looks and sounds a lot like DEAD POET'S SOCIETY, but beneath James Newton Howard's swollen score and the 11th-hour flood of sentimentality lies a dark tale of corruption, moral compromise and failed conviction that remains faithful to Ethan Canin's "The Palace Thief," the bitter short story on which Michael Hoffman's film is based. Soon after retiring...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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It looks and sounds a lot like DEAD POET'S SOCIETY, but beneath James Newton Howard's swollen score and the 11th-hour flood of sentimentality lies a dark tale of corruption, moral compromise and failed conviction that remains faithful to Ethan Canin's "The Palace Thief," the bitter short story on which Michael Hoffman's film is based. Soon after retiring from a 34-year career teaching ancient history at St. Benedict's, the prestigious Southern prep school where tomorrow's movers and shakers receive the best education money can buy, William Hundert (Kevin Kline) is presented with an odd request. Sedgewick Bell (Joel Gretsch), a former student who's now the CEO of a major U.S. corporation, is organizing a reunion of sorts at his company's luxurious retreat on the north shore of New York's Long Island and requests the pleasure of Hundert's company. The occasion: A rematch of the "Mr. Julius Caesar" contest, a Roman history competition held each year at St. Benedict's and presided over by Hundert. Nearly 30 years earlier, Bell lost the laurels to a fellow student, and now he'd like to reclaim his "intellectual honor." But as the film flashes back to the early 1970s, we see that honor had little to do with it. A younger Hundert is enthusiastically lecturing his eager, toga-clad young charges about the folly of pride and conquest without contribution when in struts 15-year-old Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), a contemptuous and unpromising student whose only apparent skill lies in disrupting the class. Hundert first tries to humiliate Bell into submission, then pays a visit to his father, Hyram Bell (Harris Yulin), the senior senator from West Virginia. But instead of a concerned parent, Hundert finds a blustering bully who serves Hundert a brusque reminder that it's not his place to mold his son's character. Steeled by newfound sympathy for the boy, Hundert is determined to prove the father wrong, and personally sees to it that Bell earns a place in the "Mr. Julius Caesar" contest, even if it means cheating another student out of his rightful slot. "You can't step into the same river twice," "Man's character is his fate" — the screenplay is peppered with enough quotes from Herodotus and Heraclitus to ensure that the moral won't go unnoticed. But it's refreshing that there's any moral at all, and that despite its warm and fuzzy trappings, the film (which was shot as "The Palace Thief") floats actual ideas and sprinkles serious questions of ethics and morality atop the usual Hollywood syrup.

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  • Released: 2002
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Review: It looks and sounds a lot like DEAD POET'S SOCIETY, but beneath James Newton Howard's swollen score and the 11th-hour flood of sentimentality lies a dark tale of corruption, moral compromise and failed conviction that remains faithful to Ethan Canin's "The… (more)

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