Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Overlooked DVD of the month - THE EMPEROR'S CLUB

THE EMPEROR'S CLUB has much the same setting and set-up as DEAD POET'S SOCIETY but it is a very different film. It lacks DPS's beautiful visual style, emotional heft and moral certainty. The result is a film that is only interesting to look at insofar as it captures the New England prep school as the English like to imagine it. (A sad result given that the DP was the excellent Lajos Koltai.) In terms of pure entertainment, Kevin Kline's finely modulated performance as a deeply repressed Classics teacher is no match for Robin Williams' charismatic poetry don. Kline's Professor Hundert believes utterly in the virtues of his school: Williams' John Keating is a maverick. Hundert's students are, for the most part, a bunch of indistinct swots. Keating's students have their own stories and personalities.

For all that, THE EMPEROR'S CLUB remans a fascinating film precisely because it eschews sentiment and clear answers. Professor Hundert believes in virtue but he is no paragon. His own romantic view of the power of good teaching to reform the class clown leads him to compromise his ideals. He throws the young ruffian an opportunity to reform at the expense of a more worthy pupil. The ruffian repays him by cheating. They point is not, however, the boy's inability to change, even in adulthood, but the teacher's reaction to it. When quietly nudged by the headmaster, Professor Hundert refuses to expose the well-connected boy as a cheat.

What we have here is a quietly played moral drama that provokes serious discussion. Doctor007 and I were talking about for the equivalent of the run-time of the movie. Can character be reformed? Was Hundert right to intervene? How far does this sort of thing go on all the time, in an era when schools and universities are even more dependent on legacies? The perils of benevolent interference are clear in this film, and you look at our foreign policy and you realise how widely applicable these questions are.

So, THE EMPEROR'S CLUB may fail as a technical achievement, but as a provocative drama it certainly succeeds. Moreover, it's always a joy to see Kevin Kline given centre stage.

THE EMPEROR'S CLUB played Toronto 2002 and was released later that year. It is available on DVD.

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