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Thursday, 1 March 2007

Dead Poets Society (1989)

Robin Williams, even today, is a comedian in my eyes, just like Tom Hanks or Will Smith. However many serious roles they rack up and however many Oscars they win doesn't alter the fact that they're damn fine comedians and I have trouble not laughing when they do their thing. Here he's doing what he does best: make us laugh while being serious. I wish Hanks and Smith would learn that lesson. He's an English teacher, John Keating, at a high class prep school in the fifties, upsetting the apple cart just as well as, though in a very different way to Adrian Cronaeuer in Good Morning Vietnam. He's expected to tow the line but he has his own thoughts and ideas about what constitutes good education, even though he himself graduated from the school he's teaching at, Helton.

When he starts his first lesson by walking through and out of the classroom whistling Tchaikovsky, none of the all male class has the faintest clue what he's doing. Things go on along the same lines. He asks them to call him 'Captain, my Captain', and they smirk. When he asks them to rip out the introduction to Understanding Poetry they look on horrified, but they can't help but pay attention, which is entirely the point. They don't get it and Keating sees it as his mission in life to make them get it. He wants them to seize the day. Carpe diem. When they look him up in his old annual and finds him listed as 'man most likely to do anything', they are intrigued, especially when they ask him about the Dead Poets Society, which he ran. Naturally, they end up creating their own version.

Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke are the nominal leads, behind Williams of course, who dominates, and it's Leonard who has the biggest part and in many ways he's the focus of the story. He plays Neil Perry, son to Red from That '70s Show, who was always great at being a forceful son of a bitch. Here he has struggled to give his son every opportunity, but in the process has mapped his life out for him, in a direction that he doesn't want to go. He's got him into Welton and he'll get him into Harvard and on to medical school to be a doctor and achieve to a greater degree than he could himself. Of course he doesn't want any of it and, after having his eyes opened to life by Mr Keating, finds the will to try to find his own way and finds his own calling as an actor. It's a great part, underpinned wonderfully by Kurtwood Smith as his father, and he makes the most of it.

Gale Hansen, who is male despite his name, is superb in a smaller part as the first to pick up on Keating's teachings. At the Dead Poets Society meetings he becomes a beatnik character, sneaking in girls, playing the saxophone and preferring to be called Nawanda. Josh Charles shines as Knox Overstreet, possibly the most eager devotee of Keating's carpe diem philosophy, who learns the confidence to be who he wants to be and to be with who he wants to be with. Hawke is good as the shy type who finds his voice.

In fact all the students are excellent, and given that the film is really about who they are and who they become that's a must for the film to work. Because they aren't just good, they're great, they breathe life and something very special indeed into the story and the film becomes a true inspirational classic. It doesn't take anything at all to admit that I had tears at the end at the humanity of it all and as I'd seen it before, I knew exactly what was coming. Why is this not in any of the Top 100 lists I'm working through?

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