Carpe Diem: Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society poster

Wanderers, we return with a review of a classic film: Dead Poets Society. Made in 1989, directed by Peter Weir, and starring Robin Williams in an early role, the film epitomises and caricatures the upper-class end of the 1950’s American education system.

The film focusses on a group of students: Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles), Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen), Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero), and Gerard Pitts (Leon Pownall) – senior students of the Welton Academy, an elite prep school, whose ethos is defined by the headmaster Gale Nolan as “tradition, honour, discipline and excellence”.

The teaching methods of their new English teacher, John Keating (Williams), are unorthodox by Welton standards, including whistling the 1812 Overture and taking them out of the classroom to focus on the idea of carpe diem. He tells the students that they may call him “O Captain! My Captain!,” in reference to a Walt Whitman poem, if they feel daring. In another class, Keating has Neil read the introduction to their poetry textbook, prescribing a mathematical formula to rate the quality of poetry which Keating finds ridiculous, and he instructs his pupils to rip the introduction out of their books, to the amazement of one of his colleagues. Later he has the students stand on his desk in order to look at the world in a different way. The boys discover that Keating was a former student at Welton and decide to secretly revive the school literary club, the Dead Poets Society, to which Keating had belonged, meeting in a cave off the school grounds.

The revival of the Dead Poets Society, along with other events occurring in Keating’s lessons, leads to adventures and discipline, culminating in the death of one of the students and the termination of Keating’s contract.

The critical reaction to this film was favourable; The Washington Post called it “solid, smart entertainment”, and praised Robin Williams for giving a “nicely restrained acting performance” Vincent Canby of The New York Times also praised Williams’ “exceptionally fine performance”, while noting that “Dead Poets Society… is far less about Keating than about a handful of impressionable boys”.

Film critic Roger Ebert’s review was mixed, two out of four stars. He criticized Williams for spoiling an otherwise creditable dramatic performance by occasionally veering into his onstage comedian’s persona, and lamented that for a movie set in the 1950s there was no mention of the Beat Generation writers. Additionally, Ebert described the movie as an often poorly constructed “collection of pious platitudes […] The movie pays lip service to qualities and values that, on the evidence of the screenplay itself, it is cheerfully willing to abandon.”

There are some films that, if you watch them for the first time at the right age, have the capacity to inspire and embolden you: Dead Poets Society is one such film. It is not a film that it is cool to admit loving. It is uncynical, idealistic and hopeful – not qualities one necessarily associates with film snobs, but what it lacks in critical kudos it has recouped in audience appreciation. It has been voted the greatest school film and it is often cited by viewers as one of the most inspirational films of all time.

I would give this film 4.5/5 as although it is hard to beat, some of the themes, particularly towards the end, are unsettling.

Hannah Carter (is going to have a bit of a cry now)

This entry was posted in Film/Movie, Issue Forty-Six, Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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