I just watched this film for the 5th time in my life. I gain more from this picture each time I peruse it. This movie is pensive without ever being pedestrian. It is though a trifle ‘sappy’ as Americans would say.
The acting is completely convincing. No actor is a weak link in the chain. Each emotion is portrayed skillfully. The characters are credible. I cannot remember the names so much.
Knox is new to the school half way through the school’s system if you will. He is deeply unsure of himself. He dislikes the sound of his own voice. His quavering is believable. I have known people like that.
I first saw this film shortly after it came out. I was about 10. The boys shown in the film were supposed to be about 16 so considerably older than I was when first I watched this movie. I am now well into adulthood. I have seen these adolescents from both sides. I have observed them as a pre-teenager myself and now as a mature adult who has taught a lot.
The dialogue is credible, pacey and witty. The artifice of the camera work is also engaging without being overdone. Light and shade; colour; panning shots and closeups are all used with virtuosity without being overly fancy.
Some scenes I did not want to watch but I forced myself. It hurt me to go through them because I empathised with the boys so much. Poor Charlie Dalton – he is one of the most amiable characters. I was like him – lovestruck with very little opportunity to meet girls. He tries his best. He goes after Chris – being a girl. Of course so a gorgeous girl has a boyfriend already. Chris is a blonde of uberous beauty. The tresses of her locks, the sheen of her eyes, the faint glow in her youthful cheek, her soulfulness, her purity of heart all make her the perfect object of grief-laden love. Once one claps eyes on Chris one cannot help but be a doomsayer about how Charlie’s infatuation with this stunner will end. Chris boyfriend is on the scene. He is a philistine jock. Looking back at it now Charlie was a little out of order to stroke her hair as she slept and kissing her forehead was not on. He was doing so innocently. There seems to be remarkably little lust in the film – that is unrealistic. There is no homosexual subtext to the film which there should be if it is to be at all believable. That is by the by. When Charlie touches that young lady her boyfriend comes over and punches him several times in the face. It struck me that this was not motivated by anger or even possessiveness but the need to make a stand – to impress his mates. Dalton should rue ever coming near her again. Chris is an early introduction into that iron law of life – the most nubile and personable girls invariably go for a detestable ignoramus who is utterly unworthy of them and forever gloating over his defilement of such a gem.
If I were Charlie I would have got out and never set eyes on Chris again. This would be partly due to fear of another beating but also because I would not wish to be humiliated. Of course he cannot take a warning. He goes to give Chris flowers and reads her a poem. He does so in her school in front of everyone. She buries her face in her hands. What he did was so ill-judged. If I were him I would have died of embarrassment. If I am rejected I accept it immediately and leave rather then deepen my humiliation. Astonishingly she comes to see him to warn him off. It is even more flabbergasting that she agrees to go to the theatre with him. She is a stunner and comes across as a genuinely good person – far too angelic for her thuggish boyfriend. I was wincing at his ineptitude. God bless him for his ardour. It is all an iota too high-minded. In reality he would be as horny as a sailor just landed in Bangkok.
My teenage years were different and much worse. There was a social divide between us and the local community. Many of us were crashing snobs including yours truly. The yokels were held to be inferior. That would not have stopped me penetrating a member of below stairs class if half a chance had presented itself.
Keating is in many ways a sympathetic character. He is certainly not banal. His comedic classroom manner is a breath of fresh air to those boys after the stale style of all the other teachers. Incidentally every one of the staff is male. Keating’s quips lead to serious points and individuality and creativity. He gets through to the boys and inspires them.
The gravamen of my case against this film is the unlikely proposition that adolescent boys would take to old-fashioned poetry with such alacrity. The poems they study are from the 17th and 18th centuries mainly. The subject matter is epicene. The language is of course recherche. Precious few lads of that age would warm to such verses. These poems are often about love. What they mainly crave is sex as I did. I would have been happy with love too but not instead of satisfying my animal urges.
These boys are smitten by this poetry and repair to a cave in the woods that stand hard by the school. The revive the Dead Poets’ Society that the anti-establishment Mr Keating ran when he was a schoolboy at that self-same school – Welton Academy.
One thing that was pointed out to me when we watched this film in English with Mr Peters is that the boys are all WASPS. Not only white but there is no hint of Judaica about the place. No one has an Italian name – not even a German one although they can be WASPS too. The locale is New England so the ethno-religious composition of the pupils is not too different from the surrounding people. They are not permitted to listen to the radio. The film is set in 1959. The Civil Rights Movement is on the march. America is on the brink of a decade of change. I suppose the film is set just before the 1960s because the United States was in upheaval in the 1960.
Neil Perry is perhaps the central boy character of the film. He is a sensitive soul. He is a thesp whereas his down to earth and conventional father has decided that the boy will become a doctor. The father is a kind of villain of the piece though he acts from good motives. The film is a loud lesson that it is wrong for parents to try to force their children down avenues that the children do not want. The father is at heart a kind man and acts from a desire to get the best for his son. I now have some sympathy for the father’s point of view which I did not have before. The father alludes to his son having opportunities that he, the father, never dreamed of. Neil’s bravura performance in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is acclaimed by everyone but his unimaginative and practical father. Mr Perry is a disciplinarian and a distant father – typical of his era.
Neil is told he is being withdrawn from the school and will be sent to a military school. Back at home we see Mrs Perry. My Drama teacher said of this woman that she gives one of the best performances in the film. She is only on screen for about two minutes but one can tell the whole history of the marriage. She is smoking nervously – she is a repressed character and she frets by nature. Her husband is domineering but not cruel. She is deeply staid and subservient. I noticed little things on this viewing that I had not picked up on before. So much care is taken over the minutiae by a talented director. The clothes express the characters but also the way things are done. I noticed that by the bed Mr Perry has his shoes aligned – I would kick them off anywhere. His watch is laid just so on the bedside table. He is a control freak and anal retentive. Neil Perry commits suicide in the middle of the night.
In the end the school looks into what Keating has been doing. The pupils inform on him for fear of being booted out if they do not. Keating is duly dismissed.
Robin Williams is at his best when he plays the wise acre. His cracking jokes and doing accents, pulling faces and what not is his forte. When he acts sincere is somehow comes across as schmaltzy – as overacted. I like Keating in a way. On the other hand his encouragement of rebelliousness goes a little too far. A school needs discipline. Any teacher who told the pupils to stand on desks would be hauled over the coals for it. Poetry can be enjoyed and studied with a rigorous academic approach – the two need not be mutually exclusive.
Overall this film was a little too sentimental. I have taught teenage boys a lot. I liked Romantic poetry but few did. Maybe Britishers are much more cynical than Americans. It might also have been the era. The film was released in 1987. I watched it i the 1990s. Maybe this was a much more sardonic era than the 1950s or even the 1980s. So much had changed between when the film is supposed to take place in the 1950s and when the film was shot 28 years later.
I do identify with Keating to some degree. He is the quirky teacher who makes them laugh. But when in trouble the pupils use this against him. Another lacuna to this film. Amongst the boys there is not one bad kid. Even their rebellion is kind and harmless enough. Only one of them is a little bit apathetic about Keating’s methods and writes a poem that runs, ”the cat sat on the mat.”
Times have changed. The smoking scenes might well be cut now. The teachers smoke pipes and this is seen as not even a vice or an eccentricity. The drinking would be more disapproved of. Keating touches the boys in a totally innocent manner – a hand on the shoulder or around them. There would not be allowed no. No physical contact is to take place – even a handshake may be inappropriate. Things were different back in the 1980s and radically different a way back in the 1950s.
The film examines the timeless debate between idealism and realism. This question can be asked of all sorts of quandaries about ethics and in this case about whether to pursue one’s one dreams or to be a careerist and a conformist. The film appears to contradict itself in that the conformists win. The staid authoritarians win. Those who experiment with individualism and chasing their own ambitions end up killing themselves, being sacked or else surrendering to the authorities and dobbing in Keating. Is the message of the film that following one’s own quest is quixotic? Such a noble objective leads but to calamity. I have to say I have some fellow-feeling for the more straight down the line teachers on this one. These tweed clad reactionaries are doing their best too. One of the most significant exchanges is when McAllister is told by Keating, ”I never had you down as a cynic.”/ McAllister pauses to consider his words. ”Not a cynic – I am a realist”, replied McAllister. There is of course no fine line between the two as there is no sharp dividing line between idealist and fantasist. Those who have a shot at their dreams usually end up bitterly disappointed. On the other hand it would be a pity not to try. It would be a shame to squander one’s talent and do a job that one dislikes.
On balance this is a worthy film. I certainly recommend it.