Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society (1989) is an emotional ode to those few gallant educators who enter our lives and make the meandering tenure of our youth more rewarding and meaningful because of their stay. Although revered today, at the time of its release Dead Poet's Society garnered several scathing reviews from some of the top film critics in the country; particularly Roger Ebert who suggested that he felt like throwing up at the end. Director Weir chose to shoot the film chronologically, allowing for two weeks of rehearsals before principle photography began in Wilmington Delaware with a then largely unknown cast. In fact, the most recognizable face in the crowd (apart from its star Robin Williams) probably belonged to Norman Lloyd – a popular actor on television’s hospital drama, St. Elsewhere and whose acting credits extended all the way back to the early 1940s. Herein Lloyd is cast as the caliginous Dean of Education, Mr. Noland.
By all accounts, the experience of working on this film impacted the fledgling actors in a positive light. Many of them went on to have very lucrative careers afterward. At every turn, director Weir fought for the actors’ creativity and integrity, instilling a sense of mutual participation that bode well with garnering the best possible performances from all concerned. As example, when actor, Dylan Kussman, cast as Richard Cameron – the Judas of the piece – suggested to Weir that he did not think his character would harbor enough guts or redemption to stand along with his fellow classmates in defiance of their professor’s dismissal, Weir chose to accept Kussman’s logic and allowed the actor to play his scene his way.
The focus of Tom Schulman’s screenplay is seven boys entrusted by their parents to academic pursuits at Weldon, a stuffy prep school circa 1959; introspective Neal Perry (Robert Sean Leonard); introvert Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke); boastful Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles); gawky Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen); opinionated conservative Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman); shy Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero) and outgoing Gerald Pitts (James Waterston). The school’s time honored principles of ‘tradition’, ‘honor’, ‘discipline’ and ‘excellence’ are viewed as slightly confining, though nevertheless necessary to mould boys into men. Inducted into their grueling academic pursuits, the boys experience a breath of fresh air when newly appointed English professor John Keating (Robin Williams) trashes the rigid structure of the approved curriculum in favor of a more self-exploring and soul-searching investigation of life. Keating’s message is simple; carpe diem or ‘seize the day’.
In one of the best moments in the film derived from Keating’s unorthodox teachings, the professor instructs his students to tear out an essay on understanding poetry from their text books because its mathematically devised scale of appreciation suggests that only through structure can art be fully appreciated – an absurd notion at best. The rest of the film is basically an extension of Keating’s attempts to awaken the boys to their own place in the grand scheme of life; to firmly situate their self-worth in the world they will inhabit by making ample use of their hearts as well as their minds. Keating further introduces his pupils to the Dead Poet’s Society – an extracurricular and transformative experience whereby poetry is read in a darkly lit cave to liberate the soul with pure self-expression. Unfortunately, Charlie Dalton takes his new personal freedom too far and publishes an article in the school flyer that proposes girls be allowed to attend classes at Weldon.
This progressive gesture leads to certain repercussions for Dalton and Keating by Dean Nolan. Meanwhile, Neil has decided to become an actor at the local playhouse, something his strict father, Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith) is dead set against. Going against his father's wishes, Neil performs as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, garnering critical praise and a standing ovation. But Neil's moment of elation is thwarted by his own father's unsympathetic failure to even acknowledge him in his performance. That failure leads to Neil’s tragic suicide. Mr. Perry holds the school in general and Keating in particular responsible for his son's death. Nolan conducts his own investigation into the matter and concludes as much. Keating is relieved of his job but not before his remaining pupils ban together to illustrate for him the lasting impact his teachings have had on all of their lives.
Reportedly, the role of Keating was first offered to Bill Murray, and then Dustin Hoffman. Both turned it down. Today, it is unfathomable to imagine either actor in the role. Robin Williams, so often an actor prone to extremes, offers one of his most sustained and unassumingly sympathetic performances, fairly dripping with the milk of human kindness, compassion and understanding. He is the teacher we all wished for in our youth; the one so few of us actually had.
Perhaps the greatest objection lobbed at the film then was that it didn't 'feel' like a typical Robin Williams movie. Yes, Williams is our star and yes, his contributions are immense. But they are also void of that self-reflective need to spontaneously break out and be 'out and out' hilarious. This film illustrates Robin Williams can act. Standup comedy will always be his forte. But he proves he can hold his own on the screen without the benefit of razor sharp jokes and scathing one liners. In the end, Dead Poet’s Society is a showcase for Williams the actor rather than Williams the comedian and this is as it should be, and furthermore, all to the good.
Well, it's about time Buena Vista Home Video began revisiting its Touchstone catalogue on Blu-ray. If only the results were a little more forthcoming on this disc we would truly have a good reason to celebrate. I can't exactly say what's wrong with this transfer, although something definitely is. Colors are not very bold or vibrant and the image tends to look a tad thick. Flesh tones are pasty pink or slightly orange. Never do they appear natural. Fine detail is present and occasionally the image looks as it should - sharp with solid film grain present. But there are too many scenes that exhibit a rather soft quality with undistinguished tonality. Blacks, browns, dark grays and dark blues all translate to a muddy deep brownish mess.
If I had to guess I'd say this isn't a true 1080p remastering effort but the old DVD transfer merely bumped up to a 1080p signal. For those who haven't seen the film in a long while, there won't be anything to disappoint them herein. The image is much improved over older versions available on DVD and (of course) VHS. But for those who own the SE DVD issued a few years ago there is precious little to recommend an upgrade to Blu-ray.
The audio has been repurposed to DTS but sounds very like the old 5.1 Dolby Digital DVD mix. This is a dialogue driven movie and there are no real moments to accurately assess the sonic spread of effects and music. Extras are all direct imports from the SE DVD and include a rather haphazardly slapped together documentary in which most of the actors associated with the project (save Robin Williams) are allowed to aimlessly spout off about their impressions while working on the film. Ethan Hawke can’t remember much of anything associated with the production. There’s also another brief featurette about scoring the film and the original theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)