The Emperor's Club
Dead Poets all over again
By Rachel Deahl

“Take it from me kids; teaching sucks.”

Going where so many films have gone before, The Emperor's Club manages to distinguish itself from the mass of syrupy tales of triumph in the classroom by offering up a less dynamic incarnation of the beloved teacher character, and the values he's trying to impart to his students.

Bearing a strikingly eerie resemblance to Dead Poets Society, this Kevin Kline vehicle is set during the 70s at a posh boarding school with its basic distinction being the style and approach of its professor. While Robin Williams urged his tight-lipped pupils to seize the day in his English class with impressions of John Wayne doing Hamlet and impromptu poetry readings on the soccer field, Kline's tight-lipped teacher tries to inspire his class the good old-fashioned way: with the work itself. Here the subject is the Classics, with the action centered on Kline's struggle to steer straight his most wayward student, a spoiled and embittered son of a powerful senator.

Unsure which cliché about teaching it's trying to pass on, The Emperor's Club squanders multiple opportunities to explore interesting topics about honesty, passion, and the real point of education. Hung on a single action, the film chronicles the lasting effect of its impassioned and painfully honest teacher's one mistake: changing a grade. But, refusing to focus on its characters and delve into their motivations and fears, Emperor's Club plays out like an uninspired snapshot of a classroom through the years. Where Dead Poets Society filled the screen with trite, but glamorized, images of the teacher who instills his students with a passion for life, Emperor's Club lacks such grandeur. Unfortunately, the less glamorous approach to displaying education at work does nothing to create a grittier or more interesting film since, ultimately, Emperor's Club spits out the same tired line about how knowledge and learning should conquer all without saying why.

Just as Michelle Pfeiffer urged her inner-city students that knowing Dylan Thomas really would improve their hard-knocks life in Dangerous Minds, Kevin Kline's professor clings to a prevailing belief that knowing the story of the great ancient civilizations will mold his pupils into better people-of course neither film actually proves this point. Ultimately neither film is willing to admit the more discomfiting and complex reality that, in and of itself, education is a means and not an ends, and that its usefulness is rarely "practical."

There's a seminal scene in the The Emperor's Club when Kline goes to speak with the senator and father of his most difficult student. In the conversation the politician asks the teacher that most feared question: what's the point of everything you're teaching. Kline fumbles with his words and says something about how learning the Classics will teach the boys how to govern, lead, and rule. Of course that answer is bollocks, but the question matters and it's the one thing the film, like Kline's teacher, never truly faces. Teaching about history, particularly ancient civilizations, is something of a precarious job since we live in a society which is obsessed with seeing tangible results, something education doesn't often offer. By and large, we still haven't quite figured out what the point of teaching is. The Emperor's Club certainly doesn't shed any light on that question and, in an ironic twist, offers up the one response it was most trying to avoid: an empty one more befitting a politician than a teacher