MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Poets Society’: A Moving Elegy From Peter Weir

“The Dead Poets Society,” (citywide) is set in 1959, in an East Coast prep school, which the Australian director Peter Weir turns into an evil ice palace. The grounds are green and immaculate, the forests are deep and dark, the school a network of echoing hallways, grandiose chapels and tiny, fusty classrooms. It’s a place of crystalline but dangerous beauty, against which Weir’s star, Robin Williams, blazes like a poetry-spewing comet.

The film, one of the best American movies of a so-far undistinguished year, keeps trying to expand its barriers, to become an allegory of the dark side of adolescence and family, a romantic fable about the destruction of beauty in a conformist world. Even if it doesn’t succeed, its feverish grappling becomes impressive. A movie’s reach should exceed its grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

“Poets’ ” hero, played with a fine lyric-comic frenzy by Williams, is John Keating, a brilliant teacher who wants his students to gorge themselves on dreams and the music of Whitman, Shakespeare and Keats. A one-time star student of this stuffy academy, Keating takes over a class, leaps on desk tops and gets his boys to tear out the deadening cant of their English anthology, emit barbaric Whitmanesque yawps.

Poetry is the real hero of the movie: Robin Williams plays its spirit. An eccentric grandstander, Keating throws his milieu into relief: the craggily beautiful Welton Academy, another of those citadels of class, sex and privilege catering to a society obsessed with money and surfaces. “Carpe Diem!” (“Seize the Day!”) is his motto. And “Oh, Captain! My Captain!” is what he encourages his class to call him--after Whitman’s lament for the fallen Abraham Lincoln.

Williams doesn’t dominate the movie physically. Indeed, his character is off-screen for most of the important action--which revolves around the septet from his class, who revive his old club, the Dead Poets Society. These seven are like a Hollywood bomber’s crew of prep school rebels. There’s the frustrated actor (Robert Sean Leonard’s Neil), the tongue-tied writer (Ethan Hawkes’ Todd), the bespectacled brain (Allelon Ruggiero’s Meeks), the gawky goon (James Waterston’s Pitts), the love-struck romantic (Josh Charles’ Knox), the wise-cracking trouble-maker (Gale Hanson’s Dalton) and the pragmatic apple-polisher (Dylan Kussman’s Cameron). Kussman seems to be playing a symbolic personification of the ex-Communist informers of the early ‘50s; he draws him as a nasty, self-serving little creep.


In the movie, Perry is the group’s leader, but he’s also the one most repressed and bullied by his father, an up-by-his-bootstraps doctor, who’s planned out his son’s life in advance, supported by the school’s reptilian headmaster. (These villains are hatefully well played by Kurtwood Smith and Mercury theater veteran Norman Lloyd.) That’s the major collision: soul and form, desire and duty, art and commerce, poetry and money.

Screenwriter Tom Schulman tries to do so many unusual things here--celebrate language, poetry and dissidents; allegorize the plight of the blacklist victims; crystallize every inspirational teacher in the person of Keating--that it might seem churlish to complain about what the script lacks. But right from the beginning, it has a melodramatic, self-consciously theatrical mode. You might ask why the authorities are so bewildered by the Dead Poets Society when Keating’s membership in an earlier version is memorialized under his old yearbook photo, or why Keating doesn’t attend any of their meetings. And, the catastrophe at the end is also hard to accept; it hints at something more primal--perhaps an attack on sexual identity--buried under the surface events.

Peter Weir has suggested that “The Dead Poets Society” resembles his previous anti-war epic, “Gallipoli,” also a tale of beautiful, idealistic young men careening toward a disaster engendered by stubborn, shortsighted elders. And it’s clear that he connects with his subject here, more than in his previous two American films: the overrated “Witness” and the underrated “Mosquito Coast.” Weir, the cinematic heir of directors such as Stanley Kubrick or John Huston, has a similar taste for doom-drenched adventures and super-aestheticized movie traps. He and cinematographer John Seale give the movie a gorgeous look and smashing rhythms. The climax, the jaws of the trap closing, is done with hammer-blow force and intensity: a rage against injustice that’s almost palpable. And the classroom scenes have a mad, joyous ebullience.

Right now, Robin Williams may be the most exciting performer in American movies, perhaps less for what he does than for what the audience, by now, knows he can do. “Good Morning, Vietnam” soared when it used his genius for the maniacal, cross-media, multi-referential spritz. In “Dead Poets Society,” he spritzes only occasionally. But the threat is always there--and that sense of an explosion thrumming beneath the surface, gives a charge to Williams’ Keating that a more gifted dramatic actor might not have managed. (Apparently more of these semi-improvisations were shot, but excised as extraneous or disruptive. This may have been a mistake: usually, the more Williams’ disruptions there are in a movie--or an Oscar show--the better.)

Ultimately, whatever its flaws, “The Dead Poets Society” (MPAA rated PG, despite salty language) commands respect and affection. It becomes--in ways that most movies don’t even attempt--a cry of passion and rage against the brutality of a conformist society, against the deadening of our capacity for beauty. And, it’s also a moving elegy for every inspired teacher who suddenly opened up a world before their wondering students--let them catch the pulse of poetry, the flesh and soul of art.


A Touchstone Pictures/Silver Screen partners II release. Producers Steven Haft, Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas. Director Peter Weir. Script Tom Schulman. Camera John Seale. Music Maurice Jarre. Production Design Wendy Stites. Art Direction Sandy Veneziano. With Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles, Gale Hansen, Dylan Kussman, Allelon Ruggiero, James Waterston, Norman Lloyd, Kurtwood Smith.

Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).