That's the ethos that Robin Williams' character, Professor John Keating, tries to instill on his students in Dead Poets Society. The feeling that life is short, and that we should make the best of every opportunity we can. After several years, I gave this wonderful film a rewatch recently, and it was as great as I remembered it to be.
Set in the super-conservative Welton Academy for Boys during the late 50s, the film follows a group of students, who are inspired by Keating's teachings. Keating, who is a former student of Welton, arrives as the new English professor, and his impassionate lectures serve as a catalyst for some of the boys, who decide to follow Keating's footsteps and revive the titular "clandestine" group. The Dead Poets Society meet in a nearby cave to drink and smoke, but most importantly, to share poetry.
Aside of that, each of the boys is inspired and encouraged individually in different ways by Keating. Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) gets the courage to "woo" a girl she has fallen in love with, even though she has a boyfriend. Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) becomes more free-spirited and liberal, albeit not necessarily thinking of the consequences, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) is encouraged to audition for a play, defying his father orders. And finally, Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), who is the most introverted of the group, is inspired to come out of his shell and explore his talent for poetry.
|Ethan Hawke as Todd Anderson|
Despite the prominence of the characters of Keating and Neil, it is in Todd in which the film focuses more. It is his character arc the one that the film follows from his arrival to Welton and him meeting his future friends, through his struggles in class, with his friends, and in writing, and finally how he reacts to the climatic events of the film. Hawke shows early on his career why he went on to become a star, an Oscar-nominated one at that. He plays the shy, introverted Todd perfectly, and his transformation is completely believable. The actors that play the rest of the boys are pretty good too, most notably Sean Leonard as the conflicted Neil, and Hansen as the controversial Charlie (or "Nwanda").
But the showiest role belongs easily to Robin Williams. Not because he overacts it; quite the contrary, his performance as Keating is very subtle, at least by his own standards. But he owns the best lines, and he delivers them with such an endearing confidence that makes you want to be in that classroom for a whole semester. Despite having a spotty reputation because of some film choices, Williams has proved his talent repeatedly, from his comedic and improvisational skills (Good Morning Vietnam, Aladdin) to his more dramatic turns (Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo). His performance as Keating is, like Good Morning Vietnam, a comfortable middle ground between drama and light comedy. His performance is not over-the-top showy, but can still make you chuckle. His emotions aren't forced, but subtle. His Oscar nomination for this role was well deserved, IMO.
The film is directed by Peter Weir who, ironically, would go on to direct The Truman Show, which I rewatched about a week ago. I wasn't even aware of this, so I was surprised to see similar themes in both films. Both films present characters that are encouraged to break away from their "pre-programmed" paths to make their own destiny. The characters in both films are afraid to explore life away from what they already know or what its expected of them, but are inspired to walk away from that road and find their happiness in their own terms.
I hadn't seen this film probably in a decade, so I'm glad to say it was as good as I remembered it. Great performances from everyone involved, and a solid, inspiring script. As a teacher myself, I can only hope to have an iota of the impact that Keating has in the film on my own students. Grade: A
(All pictures belong to Buena Vista Pictures and its affiliates)