Dead Poets Society – Review

by Bret W.

Since the mid- to late-eighties, there have been an increasing number of films that one could categorize as heartfelt, warm, and wonderful. For a while, it seemed like there was only one or two a year. Dead Poets Society is such a film. It makes the audience feel good about themselves and life in general just to know that they’ve seen such a story presented on the big screen. Peter Weir is a fantastic director who knows how to capture the essence of the little slices of life he presents for us, and he does it to near perfection in this offering.

The story opens on the beginning of a new school year at a preparatory school for boys. As the boys muddle through their beginning classes, they are swept along by the tide of the classes, the uncertainty of the schedules. When the boys arrive in John Keating’s English Poetry class, however, things suddenly change. Keating is animated and alive when discussing the poetry presented to the class. He talks more about what life is about than what the value of the poetry is. He shows them a new way of thinking and a new way of appreciating everything around them. Carpe Diem, he says, Seize the day!

The boys, in their admiration and desire to be more like Keating, discover that he was a student at the school and, looking at his old school annual, find he was a member of something called the Dead Poets Society, a secret group that met in the caves near campus and read poetry to each other. The boys start their own such group, and therein discover untapped courage and strength. Neil Perry decides to go against his father’s wishes and join a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Todd Anderson overcomes his fear of public speaking and finds untapped creativity inside himself. Knox Overstreet daringly pursues a girl he has fallen in love with, who is dating the captain of a public school football team.

All this courage and self discovery is not without a price, however, as they soon discover. Keating gave them the courage to follow their dreams, but in the end, his career was destroyed by an incident that the school, in needing someone to blame, decided was his fault. The boys, in a final gesture, show Keating that they still live by the example he gave them and will continue to appreciate all he has taught them, both in and out of the classroom.

This is more than a film about a poetry teacher. This film is poetry in the cinema, inspirational and touching, fluid in meter and perfect in rhyme and rhythm. The acting is exceptional, especially from Robin Williams who, like the Susan Lucci of film, was nominated but didn’t win the Oscar for his performance. It had always bothered me that Williams’ acting ability had never been properly recognized by the Academy. Alas, it would be another nine years before he finally won an Oscar for his supporting performance in Good Will Hunting.

Ethan Hawke is another standout in this film, as the shy and reserved Todd Anderson. We see a glimpse of what is to come in his acting chops with this film, and certainly the roles he plays after Dead Poets Society are increasingly passionate and emotional.

Dead Poets Society is a pick-me-up film, and one to be enjoyed again and again. Seize the day and see it soon.