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Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch, Embeth Davidtz, Joel Gretsch, Rob Morrow

Directed by: Michael Hoffman
Written by: Neil Tolkin
Produced by: Andrew Karsch, Marc Abraham, Andrew S Karsch
Distributor: Universal Pictures

US: 22/11/02 UK: 00/00/02

Based on the short story 'The Palace Thief' by Ethan Canin, Kevin Kline stars as William Hundert, a passionate and principled Classics professor who finds his tightly-controlled world shaken and inexorably altered when a new student, Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), walks into his classroom. What begins as a fierce battle of wills gives way to a close student-teacher relationship, but results in a life lesson for Hundert that will still haunt him a quarter of a century later.
Dead Poets Societies spring to mind. As for the name Hundert - how about Humbert Humbert and forbidden love? This has chick flick written in huge glowing neon all over it. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Though it does sound like Kline's gone from 'Life As A House', to life as a louse.

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Kevin Kline boasts to Embeth Davidz about the size of his club

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Slick production values, a superior cast and an extremely heartwarming story make sure this film is always watchable, even if it never has the nerve to go for broke. The story is an extended flashback, as the legendary history teacher Mr Hundert (Kline) reunites with the boys he taught 25 years earlier at an exclusive prep school. Back in the '70s, Mr Hundert is a lively and serious teacher, challenging his students to think about the lessons of ancient civilisations. The story centres on four students: the intelligent but shy Martin (Dano, then 25 years later Culp), the popular renegade senator's son Sedgewick (Hirsch, then Gretsch), the brainy-but-fun Deepak (Mehta, then Khanna) and good-time-boy Louis (Eisenberg, then Dempsey). While students, these four get involved in various adventures, then compete for the coveted title of Mr Julius Caesar. Years later, mistakes they and Mr Hundert made finally have a chance to be rectified.

The title could easily have been Dead Emperors Society, although that might have implied a streak of anarchic humour running through the film. And there's none of that. Rather, we get an earnest examination of morality and humanity--good stuff, but without a badly needed blast of fresh air to make it believable. It's beautifully filmed in warm shades of amber and the story itself has several intriguing twists (no one is pure of heart here). But it's all so solemn that it hurts to watch! Hundert is a complicated man full of hopes and regrets, and Kline plays the role very well indeed, although he's strangely muted. Of the teens, Dano and Hirsch are standouts; Hirsh (Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) gets the showier wise-guy role and the far more complex Dano (L.I.E.) shines in every scene he's in. On the other hand, the plot is far-fetched if you think about it, forcing the Caesar-Brutus parallel and engaging in far too much cornball inspiration to really mean anything. Basically, why doesn't Hundert learn from history when that's his job? Why is the Mr Julius Caesar title so coveted? Wouldn't the winner just be King of the History Nerds? And why do filmmakers insist on making these mushy, sanitised school dramas when real life is so much more raw and untidy?



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