Absolute classics

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Rating Sugary sentimentimentality ****

Cinematography *****

English language teaching techniques *

Any list of school films would include Dead Poets Society (1989). For some, Peter Weir's picture is the only Hollywood school movie of note, netting screenwriter Tom Schulman an Oscar.

The setting is Welton Academy, a boys' boarding school in the 1950s that offers conformity and stultifying rote learning. But before long John Keating (Robin Williams) has students ripping out the turgid introductions from their textbooks and performing poetry on the playing fields.

An entry in an old school yearbook found by his students shows that, while he was a pupil at the school, Keating was a member of the Dead Poets Society, which his students proceed to recreate for their own time. Its message is "carpe diem" (seize the day), and its injunction is to "suck the marrow out of life".

And so they do, thereby planting fear of upheaval in the minds of the stuffy school authorities.

People love this film for many reasons, not least the marvellous cinematography of John Seale. But they also love the syrupy wish-fulfilment - surely every post-war adolescent has sat bored, waiting for a Mr Keating to brighten things up with some inspired teaching.

Perhaps such desires had a hand in bringing the film an Oscar. Certainly, it inspires great loyalty among internet film buffs, who claim that anyone who is not touched by this film has a personality disorder. Maybe, although I still think the film is sentimental and manipulative.

Here is a film deriding 1950s conformity at a time when it was already a safe target. Schools today are full of aspirant Mr Keatings. To unleash their creativity, students need discipline as well as appeals to their sense of fun, as is clear in Goodbye Mr Chips (1939), the template from which Dead Poets Society is derived. The head of Welton's traditionalist entourage appears to be motivated by spite, and each of his followers is the kind of corporate man that the school trains by the score. This moralising is at its worst when Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) shoots himself when his father withdraws him from the school.

The film's anti-conformist message closes off the reading of this suicide as a selfish, self-indulgent act that devastates Neil's parents. All being well, viewers will recognise a formulaic melodrama that has given rise to an overrated movie.

Graham Barnfield


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