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What's the story?
THE EMPEROR'S CLUB centers on an inspiring and committed teacher of classical history, Mr. Hundert (Kevin Kline), who believes that "a man's character determines his fate" and that it is his job to mold the character of his students. An insolent new student named Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch) provides Hundert's greatest challenge. He seems to value nothing but pleasure and shocking people. He knows that he will have the protection of his father, a Senator. But he's bitter and angry about his distant father. Hundert is patient and sympathetic. We get a glimpse of Hundert's feelings about his own father. Hundert gently persuades Bell to care about succeeding on the school's terms. And that means competing for the school's highest honor – the "Mr. Julius Caesar" competition. Bell does care, perhaps more deeply than Hundert knows. Hundert bends the rules to put Bell in the final competition. But he has to make an important decision that will determine the outcome, taking into account the needs not just of Bell but of the school and the other students in the competition as well. Many years later, he must revisit those choices and reconsider the role he has played in the lives of the young men put under his care.
Is it any good?
The first three quarters of the movie works well, and Kevin Kline brings all of his considerable charisma and magnetism to his role here. Like the students, we cannot help being captivated and inspired by Hundert. However, when the scene shifts to the present day so that Hunderdt can examine his own contribution and find that he has done both more and less than he thought, the story lurches into melodrama.
There is a very rich tradition of books and movies set in schools. One reason is that like another popular setting, submarines, they present a closed environment. But the real reason is that schools and teachers play such a definitive role in our lives, not just during our formative years but always. This movie is about one of those teachers. It has a lot in common with such classics of the genre as Dead Poet's Society, but this time the story is told from the perspective of the teacher, rather than the students. And the teacher is the kind only the luckiest of us are able to have once or twice in our school careers.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Senator Bell's statement that it is his job to mold his son's character, not the school's. In what way did he try to mold his son's character? How was his son like him and how was he different? Is it possible to mold someone else's character? What role does a school play, and what role do teachers play? Who else influences a person's character and values? How much do we create for ourselves? What do we learn from Hundert's reaction to Elizabeth's news about moving away? What do we learn from his reaction to breaking the headmaster's window? What do Hundert and Bell learn from their final encounter? What will your contribution be?
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