What new insight could I possibly add to your experience of Dead Poets Society? Very little, I imagine. My own history with this classic film is long and deep, having been a fan of both star Robin Williams and director Peter Weir long before they collaborated on this tale of an inspirational (if incautious) new professor and alum of a historically stuffy and conformist Ivy League prep school.
Most adults, of course, seem to have very little memory of what being a teenager is like; the normal result is a lack of sensitivity and understanding, much as we see with the parents of Neil and Todd in Dead Poets (played brilliantly by Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke). However, in his passion for flipping that insensitivity the opposite direction, John Keating (Williams) equally forgets the impressionability of youth—and with tragic unintended consequences. Keating is not the catalyst for the tragedy, of course; but he’s not entirely unaccountable, either.
Here’s a smattering of the historical critical consensus on Poets:
- Williams, who has comparatively little screen time, has come to act, not to cut comic riffs, and he does so with forceful, ultimately compelling, simplicity. (Richard Schickel, Time)
- Hurrah! Poetry and passion, comedy and tragedy are fused into one absolutely marvelous affirmation of independent spirit in Dead Poets Society. (Judy Stone, San Francisco Chronicle)
- The picture draws out the obvious and turns itself into a classic. (Pauline Kael, The New Yorker)
- Nothing about this film sounds, as described, novel. Yet it grips, because it has been made with plentiful feeling and vigor. (Stanley Kauffman, The New Republic)
- Williams is impressively restrained as well as funny, so fans need not fret. It only means that instead of Good Morning, Preppies, we’re given a bittersweet, even eerie Goodbye, Mr. Hip. (Mike Clark, USA Today)
Now, this is not a perfect film. It’s not even Weir’s or Williams’ best (those honors would probably go to (Gallipoli and The World According to Garp, respectively). But both are at the top of their game here, easily overcoming the more maudlin and contrived aspects of the script.
And while there’s nothing new on the new Blu-ray release (all the bonus features have shown up on previous editions) a look behind the scenes gives some insight into the craft (and mindset) of Weir’s singular art. As early as Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, Australian Weir was establishing himself as an auteur of note—and his oeuvre backed up that promise. Every element of a Weir film is both deliciously out of control yet precise: the perfect blend of Orson Welles’ anal retentive planning and Stanley Kubrick’s freewheeling unpredictability. Sometimes the package didn’t work so well (Mosquito Coast or Master and Commander) but who can forget films like The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, Fearless, or The Truman Show?
The greatest legacy of Dead Poets, of course, is that it is the contemporary standard by which all ensemble-cast prep/high school films are judged. Weir’s casting and direction of the Welton Academy kids was uncanny, and beyond Leonard’s and Hawke’s stunning turns, characters like Knox Overstreet and Charlie Dalton are forever etched in a generations’ memory.
“Gotta do more. Gotta be… more!”
Seize the day. Seize the Blu-ray.