Something gives me a feeling that I’m only going to be all the more frustrated by what Dead Poets Society has left out as I think of it more. A part of me that loves Peter Weir and Robin Williams is begging for myself to love it, but in turn my experiences with Dead Poets Society become all the more frustrating. There are many good intentions to be found within such a film but in turn I can’t help but say this is possibly, if not, the one Peter Weir film that I like the least. For how wonderful films like The Truman Show or Picnic at Hanging Rock are, this and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World stuck out to me as the most underwhelming entries from his body of work. As it stands, Dead Poets Society is a film that only managed to accomplish half of its goal.
The energy that Robin Williams puts into his performance as Professor John Keating is the most commendable aspect of the film. He sets a tone for the film while he lets his own energy define the very best moments of Dead Poets Society, and this is where I’m finding that the film is suffering greatly. Williams’s performance, especially from how one would recognize his energy with comedy, gives the film one tone that does not fit in so well with what else comes along. I’m not trying to say this is a bad thing, because in films like The Fisher King, it most certainly works so well, but I cannot help but feel as if in Dead Poets Society it is placed for the wrong reasons.
It seems as if where Dead Poets Society falters is arising from the message it wants to send out. I’m certainly not denying the inspirational tone which it wants to send out, but there’s a feeling that the film is more undermining said message than actually sending it out properly. The film relies way too much on Robin Williams’s performance to carry out how students indeed can be so heavily inspired by their own teachers, but to that extent it ends up forgetting to detail other important aspects that should have made such a message as relatable as it wants to be, in turn lessening the impact it wishes to create. For how inspirational it wishes to play out, what Dead Poets Society is offering is only half of that message.
Although Robin Williams’s John Keating is undeniably a great character to set the tone for the film, the students on the other hand are never given so much of a distinctive personality that should have left a note to which audiences should relate to them. Many serious notes that the film should have been hitting especially within the middle segment ended up leaving me rather cold, because the students seemed to come off more as arrogant and unlikable. It certainly does not help that their motivations seem so random especially with the surprising refusal from Peter Weir to show what sort of impact John Keating has laid upon them. It’s especially baffling when you remember what Peter Weir is capable of if one watches films like Picnic at Hanging Rock or The Truman Show (both of which stand as my favourites from the director at the moment).
More troublesome is the screenplay, which never fully establishes the many subplots it introduces. For how intelligent some of the dialogue sounds, there’s an annoying tendency left by the screenplay to introduce subplots from the students which in turn are as underdeveloped as the students they are about. This is especially the most troublesome aspect to the film because of how it never tries to go beyond the predictable narrative arc which it presents. For how it is aspiring to touch upon more serious issues, the overall execution which we are left with by the film is heavily uninspired and thus the final product is both a jumbled mess and only half of a film (which I will get to sooner).
One aspect that somewhat saves the film from all the cloying sentimentality is the tragic ending. The ending is where Dead Poets Society indeed manages to reach the dramatic heights which it had been aspiring to achieve in the first place especially since it was within this moment Robin Williams’s performance fits the tone it had wanted to accomplish the whole time. While I will not deny the fact that he is an unorthodox teacher, the over-reliance upon his comedy in order to show that Keating is a teacher unlike any ordinary, feels so blatant much to the point of emotional manipulation. It’s a bit shameful that when the ending hits, we are only left with half of a film especially because many subplots which it introduces within the middle are left without any real sense of resolution.
Dead Poets Society is a highly frustrating film that certainly wants to carry an inspirational tone, but instead suffers to a predictable arc and an over-reliance on sentimentality that bogs everything down so heavily. In spite of excellent performances coming from Robin Williams together with Ethan Hawke amidst all of the students, none of Dead Poets Society rang a note that felt so inspiring as opposed to giving off the sickening feeling of superficiality. When one comes to consider what Peter Weir is capable of bringing out, what he presents in Dead Poets Society disappointingly tries too hard to latch onto the emotions but in turn, never fully realizes what it could have been and leaves on a note of incompletion.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.
Directed by Peter Weir
Screenplay by Tom Schulman
Produced by Steven Haft, Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas
Starring Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard
Release Year: 1989
Running Time: 128 minutes