Dead Poets Society (1989)

Dead Poets Society (1989)

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There’s nothing wrong with crouching very low to the ground.

Twitter Plot Summary: A group of schoolboys take influence from their free-thinking English teacher to love poetry and carpe diem, baby.

Five Point Summary:

1. Free thinking teacher in the form of Robin Williams? Oh my.
2. Nice cave.
3. But he wants to be an actor, you old fool!
4. Tragedy.
5. Oh captain my captain!

Robin Williams has been known, on occasion, to turn in a subtle and low key performance, and that is precisely what he did in Dead Poets Society. Playing a former student now returning to teach English in a prestigious all-boy’s school, Williams is suitably low key in his performance and entirely suitable in the role of a subtly anarchic teacher who, despite (perhaps in spite) of his education has come back to instil a little free will and free thinking in his students. In a world where conformity is cherished, where regiment, discipline and adherence to old routines and traditions is praised above everything else, Williams is notable simply for his restrained delivery.

The young cast are equally as impressive, in particular a scarily youthful Robert Sean Leonard and an equally fresh faced Ethan Hawke as two members of the class who, inspired by Williams, reform the titular Dead Poets Society where likeminded individuals (ahh, the irony) get out of the school, head to a cave and write poetry. As you do. This results in the group butting heads with their tutors and their parents as they try and achieve their own goals and, in some instances, make advances on ladies in a nearby school – carpe diem (seize the day) quickly becoming their modus operandi. What is nice to see is that everybody is able to interpret that in their own way, whether it is by seeking an acting career, trying to win the heart of the love of your life (or as close as you can get when you’re in your teens), or simply by trying to be the best you can be.

Oh captain, my captain!

I am not one of those whose opinions are swayed by the fact that the humanities are not entirely portrayed in the most flattering of lights, but I think they’re missing the point. The real issue here is your analysis of texts and those same texts being open to interpretation. The script for Dead Poets Society demonstrates that in some detail, and perhaps exaggerates the teaching methods used by Keating in order to firmly stamp home that point. This extends to the attitudes of most of the remaining teaching staff (some elements of Keating’s methods appear to live on in other classes as we draw closer to the end credits, and also of the parents who have enrolled their sons in this school in the first place. It’s all designed to create an “us vs them” vibe, despite the best intentions of the parents and the teachers on the whole, for the greatest amount of conflict.

As a commentary on the inherent risks of conformity and the perils of slotting into  predefined role, Dead Poets Society succeeds in informing on this subject without smacking you round the chops about it. Whilst some may argue otherwise, if I had children I would fall firmly in the camp of supporting whatever decisions they chose to make and allow them to discover their calling in life without establishing unnecessary barriers. Suffice to say, I’m appreciative of the message at the film’s core, the performances from the entire cast, and the overall presentation. It’s just gentle enough to lull you into a false sense of security but doesn’t lack the ability to surprise and shock you where appropriate. A masterclass in storytelling.

Score: 5/5

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