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Dead Poets Society Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 1, 2006

    Dead Poets Society Review
    “I always thought that the point of education was to encourage free thought.”

    “At these boys' age ... not on your life!”

    Before reviewing it now, I'd only ever seen Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society once, and that was upon its original release back in 1989. Back then, it made an indelible impression upon me, especially when I, along with my mates, went in expecting a rip-roaring comedy and came out emotionally sucker-punched. Robin Williams had been the selling point for me. I'd seen Good Morning, Vietnam and not been that impressed by it as I felt that the manic Williams that I'd loved in his live shows had been horrendously watered down. Looking back now, I can't imagine where I ever got the impression that Dead Poets Society would be a side-splitting laughter-fest in the first place - yet that is what I thought I was in for. Anyway, in the end, it didn't matter one iota because I found Weir's gently understated tale of spiritual liberation and its ode to emotional and intellectual celebration a simple joy to behold. The inspirational story of one teacher's crusade to challenge the antiquated traditions of academia, forever altering and enriching the lives and minds of his pupils whilst alienating himself from his colleagues and peers, is unashamedly sentimental, but elevated by rock-solid performances from all concerned, and a steadfast conviction that free thought should, indeed, be encouraged.

    “Gentlemen, what are the Four Pillars?”

    “Tradition. Honour. Discipline. Excellence.”

    When Prof. John Keating (Robin Williams) joins the esteemed Welton Academy For Boys in 1959, having been recommended to the board of governors, he immediately sets about shaking the very foundations of established schooling. Teaching Literature, he seeks not only to introduce his class to the beauty of poetry and the myriad interpretations that good writing can invoke, but to broaden their minds and inspire them to look beyond conventions that have been set in stone and to think and to question all that they see and hear. He tries to instil in them a passion for life, and an energetic love of all the possibilities that it can offer. “To suck the marrow out of life.” In short, he is the perfect teacher - the one you never had. And the one that can really only exist in good-hearted fables like this. He is tolerant of his pupils' incredulity or apathy. He has a terrific sense of humour, is able to turn a phrase upon its head and infect his class with an addictive love of language and of prose. They may not enjoy having to read Keats or Byron, Shakespeare or Shelley (at least, initially), but Mr. Keating will nevertheless ensure that his classes are unorthodox, thought-provoking and encouraging enough to build a rapport that does not, cannot, exist between the boys and their other stale and outmoded tutors. To his pupils, he is a revelation, part-teacher, part entertainer, yet always the most enlightened and accommodating person in the room. Breaking with conformity, he has his students rip out the pages from a textbook that he cannot abide, and climb upon desks to illustrate physically, and metaphorically, how they should be looking at things from a different perspective. He takes his class outdoors - in a poetry lesson ... what's he thinking? - and has them march to beat of iambic pentameter. He insists that the students in the photographs on the school wall, who had all graced the corridors of Welton long ago, are calling through the mists of time to the boys, urging them to seize the day - “Carpe Diem,” he whispers in their ears, conjuring up a magical quality that fits snugly in with Williams' man-child attitude to life, as evident in the likes of Hook, The Fisher King and Jumanji. It has become somewhat fashionable to bash his performance in Dead Poets, but I'm afraid I will have none of it. He is perfect for the role, inhabiting the forward-thinking teacher with ease and gentility, his mania valve shut off and a soft, endearing, soul-embracing charm replacing it. We can believe that he has shaped his own life according to the liberal philosophies that he preaches, and his desire to impart such knowledge is equally as convincing. There was a moment in a film well before this - the otherwise lamentable comedy The Survivors, with Walter Mathau - when Williams cut off the lunacy in virtual mid-sentence and broke the heart with some painfully earnest acting. From that moment on I knew that he had the power to move an audience as well as crease them up.

    “Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all.”

    But this is far from being just a one-man-show. Weir's casting coup doesn't stop with the irrepressible Robin Williams, for he also managed to round up an excellent roster of young actors to play the boys whose minds are so opened-up by Keating's life-lesson trailblazer. The fresh-faced Ethan Hawke makes a good impression as the shy Todd Anderson, as does Gale Hanson as Charlie Denton, or Nuwanda as comes to call himself when Keating's bohemian style takes a hold of him and he does, indeed, take a rather large slurp of life's marrow. But it is Robert Sean Leonard as the intelligent, thoughtful and popular Neil Perry who strikes the most vital chord in the film. When he falls under Keating's spell and leads the others into re-forming the Dead Poets Society - a sort of liberal-minded and creative underground movement that had actually been pioneered, as it turns out, by Keating, himself, in his years as a student at the Welton Academy - events are set in motion that will challenge the very fabric of the school, its rules and traditions and, ultimately, the hopes and dreams of all concerned. Many of you reading this will, of course, know the anguish that follows, the devastating after-effects of two worlds colliding and the shocking confrontation that must resonate within every family at some point when the child's own ambitions don't quite fit in with the parents' plans, and I have no desire to spoil things for those who don't. But, I will say that Leonard's performance is a wondrous thing and, possibly, the greatest in the movie. Without ever stepping over the mark or pushing the hysterical button, he conveys so much adoration for his newly-found love of the arts that the anxiety, pain and terrible resignation he will later reveal are sure to raise a lump in your throat and twist the knife in your heart. Just check out the way he reins in his emotions when he tells Keating about his father refusing him permission to act in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, or any one of the meetings with the dominating Mr. Perry. As the father, Kurtwood Smith - who I still always think of kill-crazy Clarence Bodigger in Verhoeven's excellent Robocop - is marvellous. Not a monster at all, he is still the film's main villain, but the unique twist is that he genuinely is trying to do the best for his son.

    “I would go to the beach and kids would kick copies of Byron in my face.”

    The crushing defeat of Neil's inability to articulate his feelings to his own father after all those life lessons from Mr. Keating is the emotional core of the movie. And its staggeringly painful aftermath is a lesson that I, as a father, will carry with me forever. Yet, it's funny, you know, I was just as devastated by the outcome the first time I saw the film when the roles were reversed and I wasn't much older than Robert Sean Leonard's character, and obviously associated myself more with him. The denouement is incredibly powerful, its repercussions bound to echo within you for a long time after the final, heart-surging proclamation of “Captain, my captain.” Cynics are prone to leap upon the knee-jerk mechanics of such obvious tactics in a narrative, and I will admit that the plot is bound by certain conventions that seem all-too apparent now. But what does that matter when such skill and resonance is produced with virtually every scene that passes by? The weight of emotion pouring through Robin Williams after the pivotal tragedy is enough to quell any shortcuts or contrivances that the script may make in getting us there. And Weir's meticulously calm direction adds immeasurably to the strong, and occasionally overwhelming, emotional undercurrent. He accentuates the drama by not being dramatic. Dead Poets is a master-class of filmic construction. He allows the dialogue to flow and the actors to ad-lib, in fact, encouraging his young cast to experiment with their own characters, letting them open their minds to the spirit of the story, if not directly to the relatively easy-going plot. In many ways, he is the production's Mr. Keating, celebrating the bliss of creativity and encouraging his cast to do the same. The rousing finale, mimicked and parodied so often (and, most notably for me, in Family Guy for Brian the dog in his stint as a relief teacher), is a wonderful and touching epitaph for anyone who has ever sought to look beyond the commonplace. It's easy to poke fun, though, at a genre that creates its own messiah, and with Keating, Weir, the writer Tom Schulman and, of course, Williams, did just that. Keating, misunderstood and feared by many, comes in with only unconditional compassion on his agenda. His goal in life is to inspire in others only the power to better themselves, to be extraordinary. But his methods and ideas are at odds with the established order of things and, as a result, he is persecuted. Another innocent despised for nothing more than daring to break new ground.

    “Rip it out! Rip! Be gone, J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D!”

    Dead Poets Society fits very nicely into the body of work from the majestic Peter Weir - Master And Commander being my favourite by a long shot. It features his trademark of an exquisitely sedate pace and a gentle tone that allows the power to emanate purely from the characters. His filming is never too elaborate, never complicating matters with anything tricky or diverting. He maintains course with a slow but steady rhythm that enables the story to unfold at its own speed, the film feeling as though it is ticking along almost in real time, yet never losing that growing sense of momentum. He peppers the joviality and the tragedy with equal realism, his sombre camera merely looking on as events are played out. Naturally, there are flaws as well. Neil getting the part of Puck is a mite too swift and obvious, as is Knox Overstreet's highly unlikely romance with the delectable cheerleader, Chris, from the neighbouring high school. It may add a little sexual frisson but, unfortunately, it smacks of unnecessary formulaic intervention, especially when coupled with the time-honoured cliché of her boyfriend being a jealous jock. And, if you look at the film with a cold and clinical eye, it is quite apparent that a teacher like Keating could scarcely dare exist in this, or any, era. Students of every age, every creed take on board what they need and what they want and for such a romantic soul to enter their hormonally-charged world and prove himself to be an inspiration is, sadly, a thing of dreams. Too much is going on in their minds, too much else at stake for such esoteric fulfilment to really be affecting. Even if, as Keating states, poetry can help you get the girls.

    However, in the guise of a motion picture that is warm, honest and engrossing, such ideas bear fruit. Dead Poets Society is a terrific film. It may take a few familiar turns along the way, but the strong ensemble cast and Weir's calm and reflective direction ensure that the final destination is well worth the journey.

    “Carpe Diem ... Seize the Day. Make your lives extraordinary.”