William Hundert (Kevin Kline), St. Benedict’s assistance headmaster, studies what he teatches, trying to inspire the students to live rightly. The Emperor’s Club is about the teacher, not the students.
The fall session of 1972 is running smoothly until the arrival of a young rapscallion named Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the son of a prominent West Virginia senator. He obviously doesn’t want to be at St. Benedict’s, and as a result, his rebellion attracts many other students who begin to join him in breaking school rule. Hundert sees potential in Bell and understands the frustration of having a busy father. Hundert accepts Bell’s rebellious tendencies as a call for help and begins to take him under his wing.
The school is very enthusiastic about the upcoming Mr. Julius Caesar competition, in which a series of essays determine the placement of three finalists who ultimately partake in a sudden death trivia contest. With a little encouragement, Hundert believes he can break through to the unrealized potential in Bell. Now at this point, we figure we have the film’s number, but it takes an unexpected turn that sets up something much more pressing. Hundert begins making concessions for Bell; we question his academic objectivity and whether Bell’s progress is based on genuine improvement or the professor’s sympathy. This is not the inspirational story the premise and setup establish, and even the title, which seems to allude to some elite and honorable club, is misleading.