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“The Emperor’s Club”

Based on a short story called “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin, “Club” follows the fortunes of classics teacher Mr. Hundert (Kline) and his young charges at the St. Benedicts School for Boys, where one of the directives is “non sibi”—Latin for “not for self.”

Universal Pictures tossed this film into a sea of stiff box-office competition: “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” “8 Mile” and the latest James Bond film, “Die Another Day.” But “Club” has the wind of inspiration, not to mention timely themes of ethics and character, in its sails.

Based on a short story called “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin, “Club” follows the fortunes of classics teacher Mr. Hundert (Kline) and his young charges at the St. Benedicts School for Boys, where one of the directives is “non sibi”—Latin for “not for self.” 

Hundert believes that ancient virtues can shape modern lives, and he unabashedly instructs his Western civilization students not only in ancient languages, but in moral character as well. 

“It is not living that is important, but living rightly,” he tells them one day. “A man’s character is his fate,” he says the next. “Great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance,” he emphasizes. “What will your contribution be?” 

This old-school teacher injects enthusiasm into Benedicts students—save one. Sedgewick Bell, the son of West Virginia’s senior senator, has an “attitude problem.”  

Sedgewick bucks authority, is a poor influence on his peers and doesn’t apply himself. He gets worse, especially after Hundert tries talking to Senator Bell about the boy’s behavior.

Sedgewick heads up a skinny-dipping contingent with the girls school across the river, leads in classroom pranks and generally tries getting under Hundert’s skin.  

But Hundert won’t give up on him, believing it is his duty as an educator to hope in his students. In fact, Hundert encourages the genuinely bright Sedgewick to enter the school’s big contest, in which students are given the chance to best their peers in knowledge of classical civilization and earn the prestigious title of Mr. Julius Caesar. 

This contest becomes a central plot device in the film, forcing all the major characters to make choices they will remember for the rest of their lives. 

In fact, the film deals intimately with choices and their intended—and unintended—consequences. There’s a dilemma involving a grade, which the audience immediately knows will have lasting effects. It does. And they can’t be expressed here without giving away the better part of the enjoyment of the film.

“Club” is worth seeing. It has some light-hearted moments, doses of ancient proverbial wisdom, a good musical score by James Newton-Howard and fine performances. Most of all, its themes of ethical behavior and virtuous living have perhaps never been more relevant to a culture. 

Some scenes drag a little as they try to underscore each key moment’s gravitas. And the last third of the movie is slightly disrupted by a time shift from the 1970s boys school to the present day. But this shift must occur, for one of the film’s lessons is that choices have consequences—from childhood to adulthood, from middle age to older age. 

“All of us, at some point,” says Hundert, “are forced to look at ourselves in the mirror and see who we really are.” 

“The Emperor’s Club” shows Hundert and Sedgewick doing just that. And watching them gaze at self and other for character and virtue makes one thankful for a movie that tackles ethics. 

Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director for EthicsDaily.com. 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual content

Director: Michael Hoffman

Writer: Neil Tolkin

Cast: William Hundert: Kevin Kline; Sedgewick Bell: Emile Hirsch; Elizabeth: Embeth Davidtz; James Ellerby: Rob Morrow; Headmaster Woodbridge: Edward Herrmann.

Visit the official Web site.

Stay tuned for an interview with director Michael Hoffman.