“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
‘Dead Poets Society’, directed by Peter Weir in 1989, is an American drama set in a private boarding school in Vermont in 1959. Robin Williams plays John Keating, a new English teacher and alumnus of the school, who bucks the conservative practices of the older teachers and tries to instil a sense of individualism on his students. His class, including an aspiring actor called Neil Perry, played by Robert Sean Leonard and the shy new boy Todd Anderson, played by Ethan Hawke, reinter an old society that involves poetry recitals in a remote part of the school grounds. Unfortunately, Keating’s innovated and inspiring approach have unforeseen and tragic consequences. This is a film that everyone seems to have seen apart from me. What struck me when watching it was how explicitly the HUAC witch-hunt allegory is played out through the movie, with students ‘naming names’ and the senior members of the school assiduously clamping down on creativity and self-expression. The other surprising thing about it is how little Robin Williams actually appears. His performance is strong without being sentimental, and has moments of apparent improvisation, but through most of the film he is in the background allowing the students to take centre stage. The effect of this is to turn his character into a kind of cypher, a metaphor for the realisation the students have that they can question authority, for their varying experiences of adolescence and for modernity in general. When the tragedy finally occurs towards the end of the film, and Keating is expelled, there is an extra-layer of religious martyrdom to the story.
Would I recommend it? It’s a rich and inspiring movie. Weir’s direction, as always, is clinical, precise and absorbing. Watch in a double-bill with Jean Vigo’s ‘Zéro de Conduite’, another film that depicts student life as a metaphor for politics.