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The Emperor's Club (or Bell, Byrd or Bush?)

In the recently released The Emperor's Club, Kevin Kline plays William Hundert, a revered teacher of ancient history at St. Benedict's, an exclusive prep school. He molds his young charges in the character-building nostrums of Roman history, and he takes a special interest in one Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), a charismatic but troubled young politician's son. This smells a lot like Dead Poets Society, and indeed, much of the film is unforgivably, groaningly saccharine. On the plus side, there's no suicide and there's no Robin Williams.

Instead, the film begins to display a mischievous hand when we meet the father of the spoiled lout, a U.S. senator from West Virginia. "Senator Bell" is played by Harris Yulin, who looks quite a bit like the Dean of the Senate himself, West Virginia's Robert Byrd. Byrd is also, as it happens, famous for boring his colleagues with his long-winded perorations on Roman history, to less edifying effect than that of Kline's Mr. Hundert. However, Yulin's "Senator Bell" is presented as a barely civilized redneck, which perhaps inadvertently suggests a less savory aspect of Byrd's past: membership in the Ku Klux Klan.

All this is amusing, if slightly arcane. However, the real target of The Emperor's Club turns out to be another pampered politician's son, whose surname has four letters, beginning with "B." Two-thirds of the way into the film, the younger Bell graduates from the prep school. Kline's character informs us in a voiceover that the political scion, despite having been an academically undistinguished class cut-up, was accepted to Yale due to his father's prominence.

What unfolds in the third act makes the film's subversive agenda clear: Deep inside the warm and sappy heart of The Emperor's Club is a bitter indictment of the current occupant of the White House. This adaptation of an Ethan Canin short story (called, ahem, "The Palace Thief") doesn't suggest much that isn't already well-known, but the staggering effect of this film is akin to watching the child exclaim, "The emperor has no clothes!"
--David Fellerath

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