Film Review: Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society is one of those films that people seem to hold in the highest of regards. Granting cult like status based purely on rumour and reputation rather than any concrete foundation. If you speak to people about it, then more often than not you will hear the same response – they know it stars Robin Williams and they know it is good, but more tellingly, they haven’t seen it, or don’t remember doing so. For those that have seen it, you can usually define them into two camps: those you came away feeling happy and warm buts nothing more and those who were so inspired by the film that they are now teaching English.

Dead Poets’ has had something of a revival into the public conscience due to that sad and unexpected death of Robin Williams and so, I decided to grab a copy when I could find it in stock and remind myself of what a lesson with Williams would truly be like.

I should point out right now, that I come from a very simple state based educational background. I never did “Prep” school, and I never experienced life as a “Boarder”. Corporal punishment in schools was part of the History curriculum rather than a practiced punishment; and as a result, the world in which this film is set is alien to me. The way the social groups work, the fact that a midnight study session, really is, a midnight study session, just doesn’t properly compute with my memories of childhood education. This, results in me never feeling quite part of the gang. The school kids in Dead Poets Society just come into my world far too eager to learn, far too happy to be taught. Where is the school bully?

And that causes a problem, because for me, Dead Poets Society is a film about seeing the world in all its Technicolor glory. Seeing the shades of grey that break up the route of structure that is black and white. The film is even so blunt in its simplicity that more often and not it’s ideas and themes are not played out through actions but rather through the written word. Although, that’s not really surprising since on its surface, is an English teacher educating the joys of poetry. And so, when you combine this free thinking, seize the day inspiration that the film shouts about with these overly happy and impressionable children, I ended up finding myself not truly believing that the children would act in the way they do. It’s almost as if they are instantly transported from a strict black and white existence into monochrome living without a single hiccup, nerve or moment of anxiety. It all just seems too good to be true.

Robin Williams - Dead Poets Society

My other issue is actually with Williams himself. His role is good, and his performance is inspiring. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not hard to see why a large number of teachers speak of a humble film and the reasoning for their chosen career path, but sadly for me, I don’t feel the calling of the classroom. I found Williams at times a little bit too slapstick; before swinging onto the border of madness in the way he acts. I think it is in part down to the fact that my education never involved, nor could it, a teaching style as creatively free as he portrays. State education in the UK is very simple, but effective paint by numbers teaching. And while my opinion of the “other” side of education, private schooling, is based on hearsay and media imagery, I just don’t believe in the ruled and regulated halls of tradition that a preparatory school depicts, that they would ever tolerate his style either.

Amazingly though, the one part of this film that surprised me most was how it’s aged. The film is now 25 years old. Yes, the styles and techniques used to shoot and create it, look 25 years old – there is a graininess to the film and a shallow reserved lighting – when combined with the fact it’s set at the end of the 1950s, you could be forgiven for starting to panic that things may not fit this 4K Ultra HD world we currently exist in. But really, the film, as cliched as this is, it’s maturing and ageing into it’s skin superbly. Whatever you feel about the characters and the plot, the film is growing old beautifully and feels totally right and “of period” now.

And talking of ageing, you have to look at it’s arguably main characters and the actors that play them. Ethan Hawke takes the role of Todd Anderson, the shy “new kid” who Williams manages to crack open the protective shell and while Hawke looks young enough to never feel connected to his later roles and manages brings the character to life in a way that feels natural, he just feels as though his performance lacks the real emotional depth that the situations he’s forced through would command.

Dr James Wilson - Dead Poets Society

My big casting issue though, is with Robert Sean Leonard. He plays the main role as Neil Perry, and sadly he’s also one of those real life people who share DNA with Peter Pan. His appearance in later life is a scary echo of his childhood self. And so, if you’re a big fan of House and know him best as Dr James Wilson, it’s very hard to see him in this role. Even though he’s younger, much younger and this came first; his look and mannerisms are just cemented and I spent large portions of the film thinking about a limping Brit rather than really concentrating on Shelley, Keats and Byron.

Don’t get me wrong, Dead Poets Society is a good film and certainly one that should be watched if you like your movies. But it’s not the classic that people proclaim it as, and it’s not a defining moment into Williams’ career. It’s the movie you need on a cold, dark night with a glass of wine, an open fire and nothing better to do.

7 out of 10 stars (7 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

Comments are closed.